Blue whales perform precise acrobatics while hunting (w/ video)

November 29, 2012, The Royal Society
Blue whales perform precise acrobatics while hunting
Credit: Ari Friedlaender

Massive blue whales perform 360° rolls in order to take in the largest possible volume of krill according to research published in Biology Letters today. Whales also roll over when searching for krill, enabling them to identify where their prey are most densely collected. 

Researchers from Cascadia Research Collective in Washington studied the foraging behaviour of feeding on using multi-sensor tags. Their analyses revealed the whales performing 360° rolling while lunge-feeding. Their show the animals targeting an isolated patch of krill, which suggests that these behaviours play an important role in repositioning the jaws to engulf the densest proportion of the available prey.

The extreme body size of blue whales requires a high and therefore demands efficient foraging strategies. Blue whales engulf a large volume of prey-laden water in a single, rapid gulp. The efficiency of this feeding mechanism is strongly dependent on the amount of prey that can be captured during each 'lunge', yet tend to be patchily distributed in both space and time.

Scientists suggest that this rolling behaviour is aimed at anticipating the prey's escape trajectory, such that the jaws are repositioned to where krill will be at the time of mouth opening, and thus maximizes prey capture. Within this context, and given the fact that only 10 per cent of lunges in this study involved a 360° roll, this behaviour may represent a honed strategy that is specific for a certain prey patch shape or size.

The researchers also recorded rolling behaviours when whales were in a searching mode in between lunges. This suggests that this behaviour also enables the whale to visually process the prey field and maximize foraging efficiency by surveying for the densest prey aggregations.

These results reveal the complex manoeuvrability that is required for large whales to exploit prey patches and highlight the need to fully understand the three-dimensional interactions between predator and prey in the natural environment.

Explore further: Humpback whales catch prey with bubble-nets

More information: Goldbogen, J. et al., Underwater acrobatics by the world's largest predator: 360° rolling manoeuvres by lunge-feeding blue whales, Biology Letters.

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5 / 5 (4) Nov 29, 2012
Scientists suggest that this rolling behaviour is aimed at anticipating the prey's escape trajectory,

Might also want to check if such a huge beast rotating at appreciable speeds does not create a vortex which actively prevents krill from escaping (and/or is actively funneling more of it into the whale's maw).

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