Ecological habitat partitioning and feeding specialisations of coastal minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) using a recently designated MPA in northeast Scotland

Kevin p. Robinson, Duncan a. i. Macdougall, Connor c. g. Bamford, William j. Brown, Ciaran j. Dolan, Rebecca Hall, Gary n. Haskins, Grace Russell, Theofilos Sidiropoulos, Texa m. c. Sim, Evgenia Spinou, Elice Stroud, Genevieve Williams, Ross m. Culloch, Pierluigi Carbonara (Editor)

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In the design of protected areas for cetaceans, spatial maps rarely take account of the life-history and behaviour of protected species relevant to their spatial ambit, which may be important for their management. In this study, we examined the distribution and feeding behaviours of adult versus juvenile minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) from long-term studies in the Moray Firth in northeast Scotland, where a Marine Protected Area (MPA) has recently been designated. Data were collected during dedicated boat surveys between 2001 and 2022 inclusive, from which 784 encounters with 964 whales of confirmed age-class (471 juveniles and 493 adults) were recorded from 56,263 km of survey effort, resulting in 238 focal follows. Adults and juveniles were occasionally seen together, but their distributions were not statistically correlated, and GIS revealed spatial separation / habitat partitioning by age-class―with juveniles preferring shallower, inshore waters with sandy-gravel sediments, and adults preferring deeper, offshore waters with greater bathymetric slope. GAMs suggested that the partitioning between age-classes was predominantly based on the differing proximity of animals to the shore, with juveniles showing a preference for the gentlest seabed slopes, and both adults and juveniles showing a similar preference for sandy gravel sediment types. However, the GAMs only used sightings data with available survey effort (2008 to 2022) and excluded depth due to collinearity issues. Whilst adult minkes employed a range of “active” prey-entrapment specialisations, showing inter-individual variation and seasonal plasticity in their targeted prey, juveniles almost exclusively used “passive” (low energy) feeding methods targeting low-density patches of inshore prey. These findings corroborate the need to incorporate demographic and behavioural data into spatial models when identifying priority areas for protected cetacean species. Not all areas within an MPA have equal value for a population and a better knowledge of the spatial preferences of these whales within the designated Scottish MPAs, appointed for their protection, is considered vital for their conservation.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0246617
Number of pages16
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 19 Jul 2023


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