How much do large whales eat?

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Russell Leaper
David Lavigne


Estimates of the amount of prey consumed by cetaceans have been used in ecological models and also directly compared to human fisheries yields. Most of these estimates have been based on assumptions about energy requirements. However, the lack of direct measurements for large whales has necessitated extrapolation beyond the data points available from smaller species. A number of different parameterisations of general regressions in which energy requirements or consumption are estimated as proportional to body mass raised to some power B, were compared with estimates of Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) from the widely used Kleiber equation. The choice of values has a large impact on estimates, which can differ by an order of magnitude, but modellers are frequently forced to make rather arbitrary decisions due to lack of data. Nevertheless, neither data nor theory appear to support values of B >0.75. Although some parameter values have obtained status through common usage, these have not always been based on actual data and estimates of consumption by whales need to reflect this uncertainty. Comparison of generalised relationships with data from other sources, including rates of filter feeding, oxygen consumption and seasonal changes in energy stores, suggest upper bounds on average daily metabolic rate of large whales. Estimates based on stomach contents also indicated average daily metabolic rates of less than four times the BMR from the Kleiber formula, but these are critically dependent on estimates of digestion time for which there appear to be little data. Estimates of stored energy suggest that large whales that migrate to seasonally productive feeding areas either have relatively low energy requirements for their size or need to meet a considerable proportion of their annual energy requirements outside of the feeding grounds.

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