stable isotopes, feeding ecology, migration, humpback whales, North Pacific


The North Pacific humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) is a wide-ranging baleen whale species with a complex life history and population structure. As seasonal migrants, humpback whales are known to inhabit cooler, high-latitude waters when foraging and low-latitudes for mating and calving. Beyond this general migratory pattern, a number of demographic characteristics including, abundance, distribution, seasonal occurrence, and prey preferences remain unknown or poorly described. A complete understanding of humpback whale ecology is therefore lacking. Many methods used to explore these aspects of cetacean ecology are either prohibitively expensive or limited in the scope of what can be learned from their use. Fortunately, in recent years, the analysis of stable isotope ratios of animal tissues has proved a valuable and relatively inexpensive technique for providing information on trophic position, diet, and feeding origins of migratory populations. This study employed techniques in stable isotope ecology to increase knowledge of the population structure, migration routes, and foraging ecology of North Pacific humpback whales. Skin samples were collected from free-ranging humpback whales throughout all known feeding and breeding grounds and were analyzed for stable carbon ([delta]13C) and nitrogen ([delta]15N) isotope ratios. The population structure of humpback whales was first explored through geographic differences in stable isotope ratios. Stable isotope ratios varied significantly with location of sample collection. Based on this analysis, foraging animals were separated into six feeding groups. Classification tree analysis was then used to determine which isotopic variables could be used to predict group membership. Probable migratory linkages were then described by applying results of classification trees to [delta]13C and [delta]15N of animals sampled on breeding grounds. Strong migratory connections between the eastern-most foraging and breeding areas and the western-most areas were reflected in similarities of stable isotope ratios. Foraging ecology was then examined through calculation and comparison of the relative trophic levels of the six feeding groups. Isotopic values suggest some feeding groups are piscivorous, while others feed on a more mixed diet. These results can be used to determine if differences in diet composition between groups result in differences in accrued nutritional benefits, negatively impacting reproductive success and survival relative to fish eating groups. Finally, to gain insight into specific foraging habits, the diet of one group of humpback whales was modeled using an isotope mixing model. The [delta]13C and [delta]15N of Kodiak Island, Alaska humpback whales and several species of potential prey indicate that these animals likely rely heavily on euphausiids (Thysanoessa spinifera), Pacific sandlance (Ammodytes hexapterus), and capelin (Mallotus villosus). This study represents the first application of stable isotope ecology to an entire population of marine mammals. Stable isotope analysis was successfully applied to describe and improve understanding of the demographics of North Pacific humpback whales.


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Graduation Date



Worthy, Graham


Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


College of Sciences



Degree Program

Conservation Biology








Release Date

December 2008

Length of Campus-only Access


Access Status

Doctoral Dissertation (Open Access)

Included in

Biology Commons