Blue whales rely on memory to go to best feeding sites, study finds

Photograph of blue whale taken during Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institutes 2016 tagging field season off southern
Photograph of blue whale taken during Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institutes 2016 tagging field season off southern California.

Blue whales rely on their memory to return to good feeding sites at the best time instead of eating patches of prey as they emerge, new researcher has claimed.

Scientists believe that the marine mammals use their exceptional memory skills to go back to areas of the ocean that have previously served them well, but warn that climate change could disrupt this method.

Previous studies have shown that land animals feed this way, but identifying how marine creatures operate has made it difficult to prove at sea.

“We know that many species that migrate on land, from caribou in the Arctic to wildebeests in the Serengeti, enhance their survival by carefully adjusting the pace and timing of their migrations to find food as it becomes seasonally available along the way, rather than just migrating to get from point A to point B,” said Briana Abrahms, a research ecologist who co-authored the paper, published in the Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences journal.

“These long-lived, highly intelligent animals are making movement decisions based on their expectations of where and when food will be available during their migrations.

Blue whale
Blue whale (Oregon State University/PA)

“We still have a lot to learn about how large animals navigate in the ocean, how they find good habitat and how they are affected by human activities and environmental changes.”

There are an estimated 2,500 blue whales in the world, which can weigh as much as 25 large elephants and primarily feed off krill, tiny shrimp-like sea creatures.

Based on records of whale migration and oceanic conditions in the California Current Ecosystem, researchers were able to determine that blue whales time their movements to food sources almost perfectly with the historical average timing of krill production.

Tagging data from 60 individual whales was collected over the last 10 years and compared against measurements of ocean productivity gathered by satellites.

“We think that blue whales have evolved to use historical migration routes and timing that put them in proximity to the most predictably high production feeding areas and then make minor adjustments based on local conditions,” said Daniel Palacios, co-author and a principal investigator from Oregon State’s Marine Mammal Institute.


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