Foraging Behavior and Ecological Role of the Least Studied Antarctic Krill Predator, the Antarctic Minke Whale (Balaenoptera Bonaerensis)
Part 1. The Antarctic Peninsula is warming rapidly and one of the consequences of this change is a decrease in sea ice cover. Antarctic minke whales are the largest ice-obligate krill predator in the region yet little is known about their foraging behavior and ecology. The goals of our research project are to use suite of new technological tools to measure the underwater behavior of the whales and better understand how they exploit the sea ice habitat. Using video-recording motion-sensing tags, we can reconstruct the underwater movements of the whales and determine where and when they feed. Using UAS (unmanned aerial systems) we can generate real-time images of sea ice cover and link these with our tag data to determine how much time whales spend in sea ice versus open water, and how the behavior of the whales changes between these two habitats. Lastly, we will use scientific echosounders to characterize the prey field that the whales are exploiting and look for differences in krill availability inside and out of the ice. All of this information is critical to understand the ecological role of Antarctic minke whales so that we can better predict and understand the impacts of climate change not only on these animals, but on the structure and function of the Antarctic marine ecosystem. Our research will promote the progress of science by elucidating the ecological role of a poorly known Antarctic predator and using this information to better understand the impact of climate change in polar regions. The integration of our multi-disciplinary methods to study marine ecology and climate change impacts will serve as a template for similar work in other at-risk regions and species. Our educational and outreach program will increase awareness and understanding of minke whales, Antarctic marine ecosystems, sea ice, and climate change through the use of documentary filming, real-time delivery of project events via social media, and curriculum development for formal STEM educators.
Part 2. To understand how climatic changes will manifest in the demography of predators that rely on sea ice habitat requires knowledge of their behavior and ecology. The largest ice-dependent krill predator and most abundant cetacean in the Southern Ocean is the Antarctic minke whale yet virtually nothing is known of the their foraging behavior or ecological role. Thus, we lack the knowledge to understand how climate-driven changes will affect these animals and therefore the dynamics of the ecosystem as a whole. We will use multi-sensor and video recording tags, fisheries acoustics, and unmanned aerial systems to study the foraging behavior and ecological role of minke whales in the waters of the Antarctic Peninsula. We pose the following research questions:
1. What is the feeding performance of AMWs?
2. How important is sea ice to the foraging behavior of AMW?
3. How do AMWs feed directly under sea ice?
We will use proven tagging and analytical approaches to characterize the underwater feeding behavior and kinematics of minke whales. Combined with quantitative measurements of the prey field, we will measure the energetic costs of feeding and determine how minke whales optimize energy gain. Using animal-borne video recording tags and UAS technology we will also determine how much feeding occurs directly under sea ice and how this mode differs from open water feeding. This knowledge will: (1) significantly enhance our knowledge of the least-studied Antarctic krill predator; and (2) be made directly available to international, long-term efforts to understand how climate-driven changes will affect the structure and function of the Antarctic marine ecosystem. Our educational and outreach are to increase awareness and understanding of: (i) the ecological role of minke whales around the Antarctic Peninsula; (ii) the effects of global climate change on an abundant but largely unstudied marine predator; (iii) the advanced methods and technologies used by whale researchers to study these cryptic animals and their prey; and (iv) the variety of careers in ocean science by sharing the experiences of scientists and students. These will be achieved by delivery of project events and data to informal audiences through pervasive social media channels, together with a traditional professional development program and formal STEM education.
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