Predation of archival tagged Dolly Varden, Salvelinus malma, reveals predator avoidance behaviour and tracks feeding events by presumed beluga whale, Delphinapterus leucas, in the Beaufort Sea

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Gallagher, Colin P.
Storrie, Luke
Courtney, Michael B.
Howland, Kimberly L.
Lea, Ellen V.
MacPhee, Shannon
Loseto, Lisa
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Abstract Background We report compelling evidence suggesting a predation event of a pop-up satellite archival tagged anadromous Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma) by a marine mammal during summer in the Beaufort Sea based on abrupt changes in temperature and vertical movements. This observation provides insight on predator avoidance behaviour by Dolly Varden and the predator’s feeding frequency while the tag was ingested. Based on published distribution and ecology information, we presumed the predator was a beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas). Supplemental satellite telemetry data from previously tagged Dolly Varden and beluga whales were used to determine the extent of spatial and vertical overlap between species in the area where predation occurred. Results Prior to the predation event, depths and temperatures occupied by the tagged Dolly Varden averaged 1.1 m and 3.1 °C, respectively. On July 7, 2020, depths remained shallow apart from a sudden dive to 12.5 m (16:45 UTC) followed by a precipitous increase in temperature from 4.4 to 27.1 °C (16:52 UTC) suggesting predation by an endotherm. Subsequent readings indicated the endotherm had a resting stomach temperature of 36.1 °C. Including the predation event, eight separate feeding events were inferred during the 20-h period the tag was ingested (before presumed regurgitation) based on subsequent declines in stomach temperatures (mean decline to 31.1 °C) that took an average of 24.1 min to return to resting temperature. The predator occupied mainly shallow depths (mean = 2.3 m), overlapping with tagged belugas that spent 76.9% of their time occupying waters ≤ 2.5 m when frequenting the area occupied by tagged Dolly Varden in the Canadian Beaufort Sea in July. Back-calculation based on tag drift and mean displacement by tagged belugas indicated the predation likely occurred west of the Mackenzie Delta. Conclusion Our findings provide new information on both anti-predator behaviour by, and marine predators of, Dolly Varden in the Beaufort Sea. We provide the first estimate of feeding frequency and stomach temperature recovery in a presumed wild beluga, and evidence for shallow foraging behaviour by belugas. Elucidating the likely predator and exploring the extent of overlap between Dolly Varden and beluga whales contributes towards knowledge on the trophic interactions in the Beaufort Sea.
Animal Biotelemetry. 2021 Dec 20;9(1):48