UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Kinematics and acoustics of foraging behaviour by a specialist predator, the northern resident killer whale (Orcinus orca) Wright, Brianna Margaret


Foragers with narrow dietary niches often exhibit specialized hunting behaviours that improve their efficiency for capturing preferred prey, but can leave them vulnerable if the abundance of this prey declines. I examined the specificity of foraging behaviour by a highly selective predator, the northern resident killer whale (Orcinus orca), which specializes on Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha). Northern residents are undoubtedly well adapted to capture Chinook, however, their hunting tactics have never been described due to the challenges of quantifying underwater behaviour. To address this research gap, I deployed archival tags (DTAGs) on 32 killer whales to measure their acoustic and kinematic behaviour during foraging dives. Reconstructed 3-dimensional tag tracks indicated that foraging and non-foraging dives were kinematically distinct. While engaged in hunting behaviour, whales dove deeper, remained submerged longer, swam faster, increased their dive path tortuosity, and rolled their bodies more than during other activities. Maximum foraging dive depths reflected both the deeper vertical distribution of Chinook (compared to other salmonids), as well as the tendency of these fish to evade predation by diving steeply. Inferences from whale movements further revealed that salmon engaged in other anti-predation strategies, including increasing swim speeds and evasive manoeuvring. DTAG records also provided the first definitive link between echolocation and prey captures by resident killer whales, who displayed significantly higher clicking rates and spent proportionally more time echolocating prior to capturing a fish than they did afterward. Rapid ‘buzz’ click sequences were often produced before fish captures, which is consistent with their hypothesized function of close-range prey targeting. Furthermore, prey handling ‘crunches’ were usually detected following kills and, with buzzes, provide possible acoustic proxies for capture attempts and successes that could be used to estimate foraging efficiency. My thesis determined that northern resident killer whales possess specialized foraging behaviours for targeting Chinook salmon. The specificity of these behaviours may make the whales less effective at capturing other types of fish. If northern residents have limited flexibility to modify their foraging behaviour to successfully exploit other prey types when Chinook availability is reduced, prey capture efficiency (and thus per capita energy intake) could decline.

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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada