Abrahms et al. publish in PNAS on Memory and resource tracking drive blue whale migrations

Blue whales are the largest animals to every exist on earth but feed on some of the smallest animals on earth, so they need to eat a huge amount of krill to meet their energy needs. Blue whales are estimated to eat 8,000 pounds of krill per day! So it’s important they’re able to find enough food as they’re migrating up the coast of North America. Rather than surfing the contemporaneous “green wave,” the whales can hedge their bets by going with the average timing they’ve experienced in the past. This suggests memory or social communication over basin scales may be at play. From a commentary by William Fagan, “The ultimate analysis and results underpinning conclusions about memory-driven movement in whales are deceptively simple, but the data-intensive process to get there underscores just how much integration is necessary to make progress in cognitive movement ecology.”

B. Abrahms, E.L. Hazen, E.O. Aikens, M.S. Savoca, J.A. Goldbogen, S.J. Bograd, M. Jacox, L. M. Irvine, D.M. Palacios, B.R. Mate, 2019. Memory and resource tracking drive blue
whale migrations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 10.1073/pnas.1819031116. PDF


Abstract: In terrestrial systems, the green wave hypothesis posits that migrating animals can enhance foraging opportunities by tracking phenological variation in high-quality forage across space (i.e., “resource waves”). To track resource waves, animals may rely on proximate cues and/or memory of long-term average phenologies. Although there is growing evidence of resource tracking in terrestrial migrants, such drivers remain unevaluated in migratory marine megafauna. Here we present a test of the green wave hypothesis in a marine system. We compare 10 years of blue whale movement data with the timing of the spring phytoplankton bloom resulting in increased prey availability in the California Current Ecosystem, allowing us to investigate resource tracking both contemporaneously (response to proximate cues) and based on climatological conditions (memory) during migrations. Blue whales closely tracked
the long-term average phenology of the spring bloom, but did not track contemporaneous green-up. In addition, blue whale foraging locations were characterized by low long-term habitat variability and high long-term productivity compared with contemporaneous measurements. Results indicate that memory of long-term average conditions may have a previously underappreciated role in driving migratory movements of long-lived species in marine systems, and suggest that these animals may struggle to respond to rapid deviations from historical mean environmental conditions. Results further highlight that an ecological theory of migration is conserved across marine and terrestrial systems. Understanding the drivers of animal migration is critical for assessing how environmental changes will affect highly mobile fauna at a global scale.


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