The Importance of the mid-trophic layers in ecosystem structure, process and function: the relationship between the Eastern Pacific Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus) and mysids (order Mysidacea) in Clayoquot Sound.




Burnham, Rianna Elizabeth

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While the impact of top-down and bottom-up drivers of ecosystem functions has been given considerable argument, here the mid-trophic level is given focus. In marine systems the influence of mid-trophic level species operates in a ‘wasp-waisted’ structure, where they exert regulatory control by acting as a valve to energy flow between large seasonal pulses of primary production and upper level species. In this study I examine the impact of foraging eastern Pacific gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) on mysid species at the ‘wasp-waist’ (Order Mysidacea), and vice versa, at feeding sites in Clayoquot Sound off the west coast of Vancouver Island. I appraise previously unknown aspects of the ‘prey-scape’, and further explore life-history traits that allow prey populations to persist in a given species array. The set of problems that I examine are all based on the whales’ top-down forcing in a localized area, and the prey response. I use several scales of observation as dictated by the nature of each question. I examine top down forcing and subsequent prey switching over a 25-year period, the variation in foraging intensity over a 15 year period, the differential prey species’ response to persistent predatory pulses that creates dominance and diversity among the mysid species flock, and whales’ within-season response to possible satiation. Each of these studies is linked by the common goal of illuminating the intimate relationship between predator and prey. Gray whale foraging has decimated amphipod prey resources in the study area past the point of recovery over the last 25 years, and the prey resource is no longer a viable energy source. This has led to the abandonment of benthic-feeding by gray whales in the area, and a switch to mysids as a primary prey source. It is in investigating these mysid species’ ability to rebound following severe foraging pressure that I uncovered two principal life history strategies, one held by the single dominant mysid species, and another used by 9 or 10 others consistently sampled. The capacity for renewal of mysid swarms is imperative if Clayoquot Sound is to persist as a productive foraging area for gray whales. The pattern of this relationship that I present, based on a 15 year span, was previously unknown. Intense foraging of mysids by gray whales during a summer affects the reserves for the following season, leading to a biennial fluctuation in the number of whales the area can sustain, although some of the heaviest foraging seasons require several years to show mysid recovery. I state 9 or 10 other species, as through the intense examination of mysids here, there may be a new species designated. The data gathered by myself and colleagues over the past 25 years that whales have been studied in Clayoquot Sound, clearly shows that predation by baleen whales can affect the future quality of their foraging areas, as well as influencing the population, life-stage and diversity of prey species. My work furthers knowledge in life history characteristics of the mysid species present in the study area, particularly growth and reproduction, and ability to capitalize on a release of predation pressure over winter to recover. That, in turn creates a series of following questions about how different life history strategies make use of a variety of possible energy pathways to stabilize ecosystems at least at discrete spatial scales.



marine ecology, gray whales, mysids, trophic dynamics