• New views of humpback whale flow dynamics and oral morphology during prey engulfment

      Kosma, Madison, M.; Chenoweth, Ellen M.; Straley, Janice M.; Werth, Alexander J. (Marine Mammal Science, 2019-05-14)
      The rise of inexpensive, user-friendly cameras and editing software promises to revolutionize data collection with minimal disturbance to marine mammals. Video sequences recorded by aerial drones and GoPro cameras provided close-up views and unique perspectives of humpback whales engulfing juvenile salmon at or just below the water surface in Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound. Although humpback feeding is famous for its flexibility, several stereotyped events were noted in the 47 lunges we analyzed. Engulfment was extremely rapid (mean 2.07 s), and the entrance through which the tongue inverts into the ventral pouch was seen as water rushes in. Cranial elevation was a major contributor to gape, and pouch contraction sometimes began before full gape closure, with reverberating waves indicating rebounding flow of water within the expanded pouch. Expulsion of filtered water began with a small splash at the anterior of the mouth, followed by sustained excurrent flow in the mouth’s central or posterior regions. Apart from a splash of rebounding water, water within the mouth was surprisingly turbulence-free during engulfment, but submersion of the whale’s head created visible surface whirlpools and vortices which may aggregate prey for subsequent engulfment.
    • Pectoral herding: an innovative tactic for humpback whale foraging

      Kosma, Madison, M.; Werth, Alexander J.; Szabo, Andrew R.; Straley, Janice M. (The Royal Society, 2019-09-23)
      Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) have exceptionally long pectorals (i.e. flippers) that aid in shallow water navigation, rapid acceleration and increased manoeuvrability. The use of pectorals to herd or manipulate prey has been hypothesized since the 1930s. We combined new technology and a unique viewing platform to document the additional use of pectorals to aggregate prey during foraging events. Here, we provide a description of ‘pectoral herding’ and explore the conditions that may promote this innovative foraging behaviour. Specifically, we analysed aerial videos and photographic sequences to assess the function of pectorals during feeding events near salmon hatchery release sites in Southeast Alaska (2016–2018). We observed the use of solo bubble-nets to initially corral prey, followed by calculated movements to establish a secondary boundary with the pectorals—further condensing prey and increasing foraging efficiency. We found three ways in which humpback whales use pectorals to herd prey: (i) create a physical barrier to prevent evasion, (ii) cause water motion to guide prey towards the mouth, and (iii) position the ventral side to reflect light and alter prey movement. Our findings suggest that behavioural plasticity may aid foraging in changing environments and shifts in prey availability. Further study would clarify if ‘pectoral herding’ is used as a principal foraging tool by the broader humpback whale population and the conditions that promote its use.