Do beluga whales truly migrate? Testing a key trait of the classical migration syndrome

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Movement Ecology

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Beluga whale, Cetaceans, Foraging, Migration, Nomadism, Telemetry




Background: Migration enables organisms to access resources in separate regions that have predictable but asynchronous spatiotemporal variability in habitat quality. The classical migration syndrome is defined by key traits including directionally persistent long-distance movements during which maintenance activities are suppressed. But recently, seasonal round-trip movements have frequently been considered to constitute migration irrespective of the traits required to meet this movement type, conflating common outcomes with common traits required for a mechanistic understanding of long-distance movements. We aimed to test whether a cetacean ceases foraging during so-called migratory movements, conforming to a trait that defines classical migration. Methods: We used location and dive data collected by satellite tags deployed on beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) from the Eastern Beaufort Sea population, which undertake long-distance directed movements between summer and winter areas. To identify phases of directionally persistent travel, behavioural states (area-restricted search, ARS; or Transit) were decoded using a hidden-Markov model, based on step length and turning angle. Established dive profiles were then used as a proxy for foraging, to test the hypothesis that belugas cease foraging during these long-distance transiting movements, i.e., they suppress maintenance activities. Results: Belugas principally made directed horizontal movements when moving between summer and winter residency areas, remaining in a Transit state for an average of 75.4% (range = 58.5–87.2%) of the time. All individuals, however, exhibited persistent foraging during Transit movements (75.8% of hours decoded as the Transit state had ≥ 1 foraging dive). These data indicate that belugas actively search for and/or respond to resources during these long-distance movements that are typically called a migration. Conclusions: The long-distance movements of belugas do not conform to the traits defining the classical migration syndrome, but instead have characteristics of both migratory and nomadic behaviour, which may prove adaptive in the face of unpredictable environmental change. Such patterns are likely present in other cetaceans that have been labeled as migratory. Examination of not only horizontal movement state, but also the vertical behaviour of aquatic animals during directed movements is essential for identifying whether a species exhibits traits of the classical migration syndrome or another long-distance movement strategy, enabling improved ecological inference.