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Fish Feeding and Rapid Foraging Behavior Switching by Gray Whales (Eschrichtius robustus) in California

  • Behavior
  • Foraging


Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) evolved to suction feed on benthic invertebrates and typically do not consume adult fish. Yet, these whales are flexible foragers, occasionally skim feeding on planktonic invertebrates and rarely lunge feeding on fish, the latter according to anecdotal accounts. We documented the unusual phenomenon of multiple gray whales predating dense schools of anchovy over a sustained period (22 days) in June 2022 at Pacifica, California, in the Gulf of the Farallones. Analysis of 11,265 photos and 11 video clips (totaling 4 min 16 s) for behavior and whale identification resulted in a total of 165 foraging events by six identified gray whales. Attribution of foraging behavior to the most active individuals was achieved by matching left pectoral fins, visible during lateralized feeding behavior. Whales rolled onto their right sides in 96% of near-surface side-swimming bouts. Another behavior, first photographed here, was dynamic surface lunge feeding by one gray whale. Five gray whales interspersed fish feeding with benthic suction feeding evidenced by sediment streaming: prey type switching was executed rapidly, in less than 1 minute in several instances, the shortest intervals reported for a baleen whale. Similar results were obtained for foraging behavior switching (continuous side-swimming or intermittent lunging) in pursuit of fish. Four photo-identified Pacifica whales were sighted in San Francisco Bay/Gulf of the Farallones, one of which was also matched to the Pacific Coast Feeding Group. Such local and regional connections warrant efforts to determine whether gray whales use this area as a migratory stopover site or for summer foraging, or both. Our observations confirm gray whale behavioral plasticity and opportunistic exploitation of food resources in mid-latitudes, which may enhance their resilience to climate change.

Webber, M.A., Keener, W., Markowitz, T.M., Chamberlin, D., Allen, D., Lane, R.S., Slaathaug, J. M., Rodriguez, P. N., George, K., O’Hern, J.E., 2024. Fish feeding and rapid foraging behavior switching by gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) in California. Aquatic Mammals, 50(2), pp.132-151.

Kathi George
Tim Markowitz
Julia O'Hern
Marc Webber
Bekah Lane
Bill Keener
Pilar Rodriguez
gray whales, fish, feeding, foraging, foraging behavior, behavior switching, lunge feeding, climate change

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