Intra-population variation in isotopic niche in herring-eating killer whales off Iceland

  • Samarra, F. I. P.
  • Vighi, Morgana
  • Aguilar, Àlex
  • Víkingsson, G. A.
Among-individual variation in dietary preferences can impact community dynamics and be a driving force for evolutionary divergence, although it can be difficult to assess in free-ranging marine mammal populations. In this study, we investigate the existence of variation in isotopic niche within a population of putative herring-specialist killer whales. Isotopic ratios of carbon and nitrogen were measured in 67 skin biopsy samples from 56 individual killer whales, sampled in herring overwintering (winter) grounds and spawning (summer) grounds in Iceland when the whales were presumably feeding on herring. Whales that appeared to follow herring year round (n = 31) had lower δ15N values, consistent with a diet predominantly composed of herring. This supports the existence of herring specialists in the population. In contrast, whales that were only photo-identified either in winter or in summer (n = 25) had larger variation in δ15N values. A discriminant function analysis clearly distinguished between putative herring specialists and whales seasonally travelling to Scotland in summer (n = 3), which exhibited distinctly larger δ15N values indicative of a diet including higher trophic level prey. This study shows that herring-eating killer whales in Iceland exhibit intra-population ecological variation, whereby individuals or groups differ in the proportional contribution of different prey items to their diet. This variation occurs in the absence of social and, potentially, reproductive isolation. Although further information will be required to assess the degree of structuring within the population, such heterogeneity should be taken into account in future conservation and management plans.