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Range-Wide Comparison of Gray Whale Body Condition Reveals Contrasting Sub-Population Health Characteristics and Vulnerability to Environmental Change

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  • Leigh G. Torres, Oregon State University
  • ,
  • Clara N. Bird, Oregon State University
  • ,
  • Fabian Rodríguez-González, Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur
  • ,
  • Fredrik Christiansen
  • ,
  • Lars Bejder, University of Hawaii at Manoa
  • ,
  • Leila Lemos, Oregon State University, Florida International University
  • ,
  • Jorge Urban R, Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur, Laguna San Ignacio Ecosystem Science Program
  • ,
  • Steven Swartz, Laguna San Ignacio Ecosystem Science Program
  • ,
  • Amy Willoughby, University of Washington, NOAA
  • ,
  • Joshua Hewitt, Duke University
  • ,
  • K. C. Bierlich, Oregon State University

Climate change is a global phenomenon, yet impacts on resource availability to predators may be spatially and temporally diverse and asynchronous. As capital breeders, whales are dependent on dense, predictable prey resources during foraging seasons. An Unusual Mortality Event (UME) of Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) was declared in 2019 due to a dramatic rise in stranded animals, many emaciated. Climate change impacts may have affected prey availability on the primary foraging grounds of ENP gray whales (~20,000 individuals) in the Arctic and sub-Arctic region and in coastal habitats between northern California, USA and British Columbia, Canada where a small sub-group of ENP whales called the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG; ~230 individuals) forages. To investigate variability of gray whale body condition relative to changing ocean conditions, we compare two datasets of gray whale aerial photogrammetry images collected via Unoccupied Aircraft Systems (UAS) on the ENP wintering grounds in San Ignacio Lagoon, Mexico (SIL; n=111) and on the PCFG feeding grounds in Oregon, USA (n=72) over the same three-year period (2017–2019). We document concurrent body condition improvement of PCFG whales in Oregon while body condition of whales in SIL declined. This result indicates that the UME may have affected ENP whales due to reduced energetic gain on some Arctic/sub-Arctic foraging grounds, while PCFG whales are recovering from poor prey conditions during the NE Pacific marine heatwave event of 2014–2016. Surprisingly, we found that PCFG whales in Oregon had significantly worse body condition than whales in SIL, even when accounting for year and phenology. We derive support for this unexpected finding via photogrammetry analysis of opportunistic aerial images of gray whales on Arctic foraging grounds (n=18) compared to PCFG whales in Oregon (n=30): the body condition of PCFG whales was significantly lower (t=2.96, p=0.005), which may cause PCFG whales to have reduced reproductive capacity or resilience to environmental perturbations compared to ENP whales. Overall, our study elucidates divergent gray whale body condition across sub-groups and time, and we demonstrate the value of UAS to effectively monitor and identify the physiological response of whales to climate change.

Original languageEnglish
Article number867258
JournalFrontiers in Marine Science
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2022 Torres, Bird, Rodríguez-González, Christiansen, Bejder, Lemos, Urban R, Swartz, Willoughby, Hewitt and Bierlich.

    Research areas

  • body condition, drones/UAS, ecosystem variability, photogrammetry, population health, prey availability, uncertainty, whales

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