MMRU conducts research of the highest standards to enhance marine mammal conservation and reduce conflicts with human uses of our shared oceans


Marine Mammal Research News:

Orca Quest 2020
In Search of Killer Whales

In August 2020, nine people set sail aboard the MV Gikumi to determine whether there are enough chinook salmon to support southern resident killer whales in the Salish Sea.  For 30 days, we used electronic fish finders, biologging tracking devices, and drones to document the abundance and distribution of salmon, as well as the feeding behaviours of two populations of resident killer whales—one that is declining (the southern residents) and one that is increasing (the northern residents). Read Full Article


Harbour seals respond differently to pulses of out-migrating coho and Chinook salmon smolts

Biologging data from foraging harbour seals shows less impact on outmigrating salmon than expected. A few seals in the study population targetted juvenile coho, and exerted less pressure on chinook—appearing instead to target other predators of juvenile chinook Predation by harbour seals is believed to significantly impact juvenile coho and Chinook salmon as they enter […]

Read Full Article →


SWIMMING WITH THE POD
Sneak peak into the lives of killer whales

UBC researchers captured some amazing underwater video this week from the back of a killer whale showing a pod of killer whales travelling and interacting together. Read Article 


 RECENT PUBLICATIONS


(in press)
 
Diving deep into trouble: The role of foraging strategy and morphology in adapting to a changing environment.
Ladds, M., D.A.S. Rosen, C.D. Gerlinsky, D. Slip and R. Harcourt. (in press).
Conservation Physiology, doi: coaa111
abstract
Physiology places constraints on an animal’s ability to forage and those unable to adapt to changing conditions may face increased challenges to reproduce and survive. As the global marine environment continues to change, small, air-breathing, endothermic marine predators such as otariids (fur seals and sea lions) and particularly females and juveniles may experience increased difficulties in successfully obtaining adequate food resources. We explored whether physiological limits of female otariids may be innately related to body morphology (fur seals vs sea lions) and/or dictate foraging strategies (epipelagic vs mesopelagic or benthic). We conducted a systematic review of the increased body of literature since the original reviews of Costa et al. (2004) and Arnould and Costa (2006) on behavioural (dive duration and depth) and physiological (total body oxygen stores and diving metabolic rates) parameters. We also estimated calculated aerobic dive limit (cADL - estimated duration of aerobic dives) for species, and used simulations to predict the proportion of dives that exceeded the cADL. We then tested whether body morphology or foraging strategy were the primary predictors of these behavioural and physiological characteristics. We found that foraging strategy more than morphology was a better predictor of most parameters, including whether a species was more likely to exceed their cADL during a dive and the ratio of dive time to cADL. This suggests that benthic divers are more likely to be foraging at their physiological capacity. For species operating near their physiological capacity (regularly exceeding their cADL), the ability to switch strategies is limited as the cost of foraging deeper and longer is disproportionally high. It is proposed that some otariids may not have the ability to switch foraging strategies and so be unable adapt to a changing oceanic eco

keywords     otariid, aerobic dive limit, prey availability, meta analysis, diving
show/hide abstract

Pacific great blue herons consume thousands of juvenile salmon.
Sherker, Z.T., K. Pellett, J. Atkinson, J. Damborg and A.W. Trites. (in press).
Canadian Journal of Zoology
abstract
An array of predators that consume juvenile salmon may account for the poor returns of adult salmon to the Salish Sea. However, the Pacific great blue heron (Ardea herodias fannini) is rarely listed among the known salmon predators, despite being regularly seen near salmon streams. Investigating heron predation by scanning nesting sites within 35 km of three British Columbia rivers for fecal remains containing Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags implanted in >100,000 juvenile salmon from 2008-2018 yielded 1,205 tags, representing a minimum annual predation rate of 0.3-1.3% of all juvenile salmon. Most of this predation (99%) was caused by ~420 adult herons from three heronries. Correcting for tags defecated outside of the heronry raised the predation rates to 0.7-3.2%-and was as high as 6% during a year of low river flow. Predation occurs during chick-rearing in late spring, and accounts for 4.1-8.4% of the heron chick diet. Smaller salmon smolts were significantly more susceptible to heron predation than larger conspecifics. The proximity of heronries relative to salmon bearing rivers is likely a good predictor of heron predation on local salmon runs, and can be monitored to assess coast-wide effects of great blue herons on salmon recovery.

keywords     predation, salmon, smolts, herons, chicks, diet
show/hide abstract

Cardiac examinations of anesthetized Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus), northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus), and a walrus (Odobenus rosmarus).
Storlund, R.L., D.A.S. Rosen, M. Margiocco, M. Haulena and A.W. Trites. (in press).
Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine
abstract
Pinniped hearts have been well described via dissection, but in vivo measurements of cardiac structure, function, and electrophysiology are lacking. Electrocardiograms (ECGs) were recorded under anesthesia from 8 Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus), 5 northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus), and 1 walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) to investigate cardiac electrophysiology in pinnipeds. In addition, echocardiograms were performed on all 8 anesthetized Steller sea lions to evaluate in vivo cardiac structure and function. Measured and calculated ECG parameters included P‑wave, PQ, QRS, and QT interval durations, P‑, R‑, and T‑wave amplitudes, P‑ and T‑wave polarities, and the mean electrical axis (MEA). Measured and calculated echocardiographic parameters included left ventricular internal diameter, interventricular septum thickness, and left ventricular posterior wall thickness in systole and diastole (using M-mode), left atrium and aortic root dimensions (using 2D), and maximum aortic and pulmonary flow velocities (using pulsed wave spectral Doppler). ECG measurements were similar to those reported for other pinniped species, but there was considerable variation in the MEAs of Steller sea lions and northern fur seals. Echocardiographic measurements were similar to those reported for southern sea lions (Otaria flavenscens), including 5 out of 8 Steller sea lions having a left atrial to aortic root ratio < 1, which may indicate that they have an enlarged aortic root compared to awake terrestrial mammals. Isoflurane anesthesia likely affected some of the measurements as evidenced by the reduced fractional shortening found in Steller sea lions compared to awake terrestrial mammals. The values reported are useful reference points for assessing cardiac health in pinnipeds under human care.
show/hide abstract

Molting strategies of Arctic seals drive annual patterns in metabolism.
Thometz, N.M., H. Hermann-Sorensen, B. Russell, D.A.S. Rosen and C. Reichmuth. (in press).
Conservation Physiology
abstract
Arctic seals, including spotted (Phoca largha), ringed (Pusa hispida), and bearded (Erignathus barbatus) seals, are directly affected by sea ice loss. These species use sea ice as a haul-out substrate for various critical functions, including their annual molt. Continued environmental warming will inevitably alter the routine behavior and overall energy budgets of Arctic seals, but it is difficult to quantify these impacts as their metabolic requirements are not well known—due in part to the difficulty of studying wild individuals. Thus, data pertaining to species-specific energy demands is urgently needed to better understand the physiological consequences of rapid environmental change. We used open-flow respirometry over a four-year period to track fine-scale, longitudinal changes in the resting metabolic rate (RMR) of four spotted, three ringed, and one bearded seal trained to participate in research. Simultaneously, we collected complementary physiological and environmental data. Species-specific metabolic demands followed expected patterns based on body size, with the largest species, the bearded seal, exhibiting the highest absolute RMR (0.48±0.04 L O2 min-1) and the lowest mass-specific RMR (4.10±0.47 ml O2 min-1 kg-1), followed by spotted (absolute: 0.33±0.07 L O2 min-1; mass-specific: 6.13±0.73 ml O2 min-1 kg-1) and ringed (absolute: 0.20±0.04 L O2 min-1; mass-specific: 7.01±1.38 ml O2 min-1 kg-1) seals. Further, we observed clear and consistent annual patterns in RMR that related to the distinct molting strategies of each species. For species that molted over relatively short intervals—spotted (33±4 days) and ringed (28±6 days) seals—metabolic demands increased markedly in association with molt. In contrast, the bearded seal exhibited a prolonged molting strategy (119±2 days), which appeared to limit the overall cost of molting as indicated by a relatively stable annual RMR. These findings highlight energetic trade-offs associated with different molting strategies and provide quantitative data that can be used to assess species-specific vulnerabilities to changing conditions.

keywords     Arctic seals, spotted seal, ringed seal, bearded seal, sea ice, molt, climate change, respirometry, resting metabolic rate, energetic trade-offs
show/hide abstract

Behavioral insights into the decline and natural history of Steller sea lions.
Trites, A.W. (in press).
In C. Campagna and R.G. Harcourt (eds), Ethology and behavioral ecology of otariids and the walrus. Springer, Cham, Switzerland.
abstract
Two competing hypotheses were proposed to explain why Steller sea lions had declined in the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. One of the theories was that young sea lions were starving because fisheries had reduced the abundance of groundfish-the overfishing hypothesis. The other was that these low-fat species of fish had increased in abundance as the sea lion population declined following the 1976-1977 oceanic regime shift, and were compromising sea lion reproductive and survival rates-the junk-food hypothesis. Behavioral ecologists tested these hypotheses by comparing sea lion behaviors in the declining region (Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands) with sea lion behaviors in an increasing region (Southeast Alaska) to determine whether the populations exhibited behavioral differences consistent with food shortages. These studies involved comparing dive depths, dive durations, time spent foraging, and time spent nursing by regions and seasons. Research also focused on weaning-a critical life-history stage-to determine when and how it occurs. Collectively, these observations and measures of behavioral responses revealed that most dependent young begin supplementing their milk diet with fish between April and May, and wean just before the start of the upcoming June breeding season. However, the proportion of young sea lions that wean at 1, 2 or 3 years of age appears to vary by year due to regional and temporal differences in the quantity and quality of prey available to them once weaned. None of the behavioral studies of adult and juvenile Steller sea lions supported the overfishing hypothesis-but were, instead, consistent with the junk-food hypothesis. It appears that lactating females that consume large amounts of low-energy fish (such as walleye pollock and Pacific cod) have a high probability of miscarriage, and will keep their dependent young for an extra one or two years-thereby causing birth rates and population size to decline. In contrast, lactating females that consume larger amounts of fattier fish (such as sand lance and Pacific herring) can successfully wean a pup every year. Plasticity in age at weaning appears to be an evolutionary adaptation to natural shifts in community prey structure in the North Pacific Ocean-and is an adaptation that successfully slows population declines of Steller sea lions until the ocean shifts to an alternative state containing greater portions of energy-rich fish that allows sea lion numbers to increase again.

keywords     Steller sea lion, behavior
show/hide abstract

2021
 
Foraging habitat of North Atlantic right whales has declined in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada, and may be insufficient for successful reproduction.
Gavrilchuk, K., V. Lesage, S.M.E. Fortune, A.W. Trites, and S. Plourde. 2021.
Endangered Species Research. 44:113-136.
abstract
North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) population fed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Canada) in recent years. However, little is known about the distribution of copepods in the Gulf, and whether their abundance is sufficient to energetically sustain right whales. We used a mechanistic modeling approach to predict areas within the Gulf that have foraging potential for adult female right whales, based on the annual energetic needs of resting, pregnant, and lactating females, and their theoretical prey density requirements. We identified suitable foraging areas for right whales by coupling a foraging bioenergetics model with a 12-year data set (2006-2017) describing the abundance and three-dimensional distribution of late-stage Calanus spp. in the Gulf. Prey densities in the southern Gulf (from Shediac Valley to the Magdalen Islands) supported all three reproductive states in most (≥ 6) years. However, foraging habitat became progressively sparse in the southern Gulf over time, with noticeably less suitable habitat available after 2014. Few other potentially suitable foraging areas were identified elsewhere in the Gulf. Overall, the availability of foraging habitat in the Gulf varied considerably between years, and was higher for resting females than for pregnant and lactating females. Our findings are consistent with the recent low calving rates, and indicate that prey biomass in the Gulf of St. Lawrence may be insufficient in most years to support successful reproduction of North Atlantic right whales.

keywords     nutritional stress, bioenergetics, endangered, copepods, energy requirements, foraging, habitat, Calanus, right whale, Gulf of St Lawrence, prey density
show/hide abstract View Reference

Resting and swimming metabolic rates in juvenile walruses (Odobenus rosmarus).
Rosen, D.A.S. 2021.
Marine Mammal Science 37:162-172.
abstract
Changes in Arctic ice conditions have raised concerns regarding potential impacts on energy expenditure and food requirements of walruses. Modelling the repercussions of environmental changes requires accurate species-specific measures of bioenergetic expenditures. This is particularly true for walruses, who have a unique anatomy and foraging ecology from other pinnipeds. This study measured resting metabolic rate (RMR) and subsurface swimming metabolism in two juvenile walruses over a 13-month period. The walruses had relatively low RMR compared to studies of other young pinnipeds. RMR was greater for the male than the female, as expected given his larger size; the reverse was true on a mass-specific basis. There was also considerable variability in RMR for each walrus during the year that could not be accounted for by changes in body mass. Metabolism while swimming was about twice RMR, and locomotor costs were higher than generally predicted for other marine mammals. The lower calculated swimming efficiency may reflect the fact that walruses are not “high velocity” pursuit predators. The estimates of metabolic expenditure obtained in this study for young walruses are invaluable for quantifying the energetic consequences of behavioral changes induced by environmental shifts in the wild.

keywords     bioenergetics, metabolism, swimming, walrus
show/hide abstract View Reference

See all publications here


MMRU on INSTAGRAM