Methods Here, we conducted ship-based acoustic surveys, net tows and water column profiling (salinity, temperature, chlorophyll fluorescence) to determine the volumetric density, distribution and community composition of mesozooplankton (predominantly euphausiids and copepods) and oceanographic properties of the water column in the vicinity of whale sharks that were tracked simultaneously using satellite-linked tags at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia. Generalised linear mixed effect models were used to explore relationships between the 3-dimensional movement behaviours of tracked sharks and surrounding prey fields at a spatial scale of ~ 1 km.
Results We identified prey density as a significant driver of horizontal space use, with sharks occupying areas along the reef edge where densities were highest. These areas were characterised by complex bathymetry such as reef gutters and pinnacles. Temperature and salinity profiles revealed a well-mixed water column above the height of the bathymetry (top 40 m of the water column). Regions of stronger stratification were associated with reef gutters and pinnacles that concentrated prey near the seabed, and entrained productivity at local scales (~ 1 km). We found no quantitative relationship between the depth use of sharks and vertical distributions of horizontally averaged prey density. Whale sharks repeatedly dove to depths where spatially averaged prey concentration was highest but did not extend the time spent at these depth layers.
Conclusions Our work reveals previously unrecognized complexity in interactions between whale sharks and their zooplankton prey.
- Marine megafauna
- Bio-physical drivers
- Foraging ecology
- Habitat use
- 3D utilisation distribution