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Individual, ecological, and anthropogenic influences on activity budgets of long-finned pilot whales

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Time allocation to different activities and habitats enables individuals to modulate their perceived risks and access to resources, and can reveal important trade-offs between fitness-enhancing activities (e.g., feeding vs. social behavior). Species with long reproductive cycles and high parental investment, such as marine mammals, rely on such behavioral plasticity to cope with rapid environmental change, including anthropogenic stressors. We quantified activity budgets of free-ranging long-finned pilot whales in order to assess individual time trade-offs between foraging and other behaviors in different individual and ecological contexts, and during experimental sound exposures. The experiments included 1-2 and 6-7 kHz naval sonar exposures (a potential anthropogenic stressor), playback of killer whale (a potential predator/competitor) vocalizations, and negative controls. We combined multiple time series data from digital acoustic recording tags (DTAG) as well as group-level social behavior data from visual observations of tagged whales at the surface. The data were classified into near-surface behaviors and dive types (using a hidden Markov model for dive transitions) and aggregated into time budgets. On average, individuals (N=19) spent most of their time (69%) resting and transiting near surface, 21% in shallow dives (depth <40m), and only 10% of their time in deep foraging dives, of which 65% reached a depth 10m from the sea bottom. Individuals in the largest of three body size classes or accompanied by calves tended to spend more time foraging than others. Simultaneous tagging of pairs of individuals showed that up to 50% of the activity budget was synchronized between conspecifics with decreased synchrony during foraging periods. Individuals spent less time foraging when forming larger non-vocal aggregations of individuals in late afternoons, and more time foraging when in the mid-range of water depths (300-400m) available in the study area (50-700m). Individuals reduced foraging time by 83% (29-96%) during their first exposure to sonar, but not during killer whale sound playbacks. A relative increase in foraging during repeat sonar exposures indicated habituation or change in response tactic. We discuss the possible adaptive value of these trade-offs in time allocation to reduce individual conflict while maintaining benefits of group living.


Original languageEnglish
Article numbere02044
Number of pages26
Issue number12
Early online date27 Dec 2017
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2017

    Research areas

  • Anthropogenic noise, Activity synchrony, Benthic habitat, Deep diving mammal, DTAG, Ethogram, Globicephala melas, Hidden Markov model, Naval sonar

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