Predicting suitable habitats for foraging and migration in Eastern Indian Ocean pygmy blue whales from satellite tracking data

Luciana C. Ferreira, Curt Jenner, Micheline Jenner, Vinay Udyawer, Ben Radford, Andrew Davenport, Luciana Moller, Virginia Andrews-Goff, Mike Double, Michele Thums

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Accurate predictions of animal occurrence in time and space are crucial for informing and implementing science-based management strategies for threatened species. Methods: We compiled known, available satellite tracking data for pygmy blue whales in the Eastern Indian Ocean (n = 38), applied movement models to define low (foraging and reproduction) and high (migratory) move persistence underlying location estimates and matched these with environmental data. We then used machine learning models to identify the relationship between whale occurrence and environment, and predict foraging and migration habitat suitability in Australia and Southeast Asia. Results: Our model predictions were validated by producing spatially varying accuracy metrics. We identified the shelf off the Bonney Coast, Great Australian Bight, and southern Western Australia as well as the slope off the Western Australian coast as suitable habitat for migration, with predicted foraging/reproduction suitable habitat in Southeast Asia region occurring on slope and in deep ocean waters. Suitable foraging habitat occurred primarily on slope and shelf break throughout most of Australia, with use of the continental shelf also occurring, predominanly in South West and Southern Australia. Depth of the water column (bathymetry) was consistently a top predictor of suitable habitat for most regions, however, dynamic environmental variables (sea surface temperature, surface height anomaly) influenced the probability of whale occurrence. Conclusions: Our results indicate suitable habitat is related to dynamic, localised oceanic processes that may occur at fine temporal scales or seasonally. An increase in the sample size of tagged whales is required to move towards developing more dynamic distribution models at seasonal and monthly temporal scales. Our validation metrics also indicated areas where further data collection is needed to improve model accuracy. This is of particular importance for pygmy blue whale management, since threats (e.g., shipping, underwater noise and artificial structures) from the offshore energy and shipping industries will persist or may increase with the onset of an offshore renewable energy sector in Australia.

Original languageEnglish
Article number42
Number of pages20
JournalMovement Ecology
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jun 2024


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