Distribution and habitat use modelling from satellite tracking data of humpback whales in Brazil agree with shipboard survey data modelling

Guilherme A. Bortolotto*, Alexandre Zerbini, Len Thomas, Artur Andriolo, Philip Steven Hammond

*Corresponding author for this work

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Statistical modelling of animal distributions has been widely applied to explain how mobile species use their habitats. The distribution of and habitat use by humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae off the eastern coast of Brazil have previously been investigated by modelling visual survey data. Here, we modelled distribution in their breeding range using individual tracking data to compare ecological inferences with those from previous models from line transect data. A generalised estimating equation framework was used to model the tracking data and pseudo-absences as functions of spatial covariates. Covariates considered were latitude and longitude, sea surface temperature (SST), current and wind speeds near the surface, distances to shelf-break and the coast, sea bottom depth and slope, and a factor variable representing ‘shelter’. Two modelling exercises were developed: a habitat use model (HUM) and a distribution model (DIM). Covariates retained in the selected HUM were SST, distance to coast and shelf-break, current and wind speeds and shelter. Covariates retained in the selected DIM were latitude/longitude, current speed and distances to shelf-break and coast. The modelled relationships between whale occurrence and environmental covariates using tracking data were similar to those using line transect data. Distribution maps were also similar, supporting higher densities around the Abrolhos Archipelago and to its south. We showed that habitat use and distribution of this population in the area could be similarly inferred by modelling either line transect or tracking data. Using these 2 approaches in conjunction can strengthen the understanding of important ecological aspects of animal populations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)161-174
Number of pages14
JournalMarine Ecology Progress Series
Early online date5 Oct 2023
Publication statusPublished - 5 Oct 2023


  • Megaptera novaeangliae
  • Ecology
  • Conservation
  • Marine mammals
  • Population recovery


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