Prey patch patterns predict habitat use by top marine predators with diverse foraging strategies

PLoS One. 2013;8(1):e53348. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0053348. Epub 2013 Jan 3.


Spatial coherence between predators and prey has rarely been observed in pelagic marine ecosystems. We used measures of the environment, prey abundance, prey quality, and prey distribution to explain the observed distributions of three co-occurring predator species breeding on islands in the southeastern Bering Sea: black-legged kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla), thick-billed murres (Uria lomvia), and northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus). Predictions of statistical models were tested using movement patterns obtained from satellite-tracked individual animals. With the most commonly used measures to quantify prey distributions--areal biomass, density, and numerical abundance--we were unable to find a spatial relationship between predators and their prey. We instead found that habitat use by all three predators was predicted most strongly by prey patch characteristics such as depth and local density within spatial aggregations. Additional prey patch characteristics and physical habitat also contributed significantly to characterizing predator patterns. Our results indicate that the small-scale prey patch characteristics are critical to how predators perceive the quality of their food supply and the mechanisms they use to exploit it, regardless of time of day, sampling year, or source colony. The three focal predator species had different constraints and employed different foraging strategies--a shallow diver that makes trips of moderate distance (kittiwakes), a deep diver that makes trip of short distances (murres), and a deep diver that makes extensive trips (fur seals). However, all three were similarly linked by patchiness of prey rather than by the distribution of overall biomass. This supports the hypothesis that patchiness may be critical for understanding predator-prey relationships in pelagic marine systems more generally.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomass
  • Charadriiformes / physiology
  • Ecosystem*
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Food Chain*
  • Fur Seals / physiology
  • Models, Biological
  • Models, Statistical
  • Oceans and Seas
  • Population Dynamics
  • Predatory Behavior*
  • Seasons

Grant support

Funding was provided by the North Pacific Research Board as part of the Bering Sea Project []. The funders facilitated indersciplinary partnerships as part of the program but had no role in the specifics of the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.