Behavioural plasticity and the realised thermal niche of basking sharks

Published on
29 January 2022

Cool runnings: behavioural plasticity and the realised thermal niche of basking sharks

E. M. Johnston, J. D. R. Houghton, P. A. Mayo, G. K. F. Hatten, A. P. Klimley & P. J. Mensink


Long-distance migrations by marine vertebrates are often triggered by pronounced environmental cues. For the endangered basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus), seasonal changes in water temperature are frequently proposed as a cue for aggregation within (and dispersal from) coastal hotspots. The inference is that such movements reflect year-round occupancy within a given thermal ‘envelope’. However, the marked variance in timing, direction and depth of dispersal movements hint at a more nuanced explanation for basking sharks. Here, using data from pop-off archival transmitters deployed on individuals in Irish waters, we explored whether autumnal decreases in water temperature triggered departure from coastal habitats and how depth and location shaped the sharks’ realised thermal environment over time. Temperature was not an apparent driver of dispersal from coastal seas, and variance in daily temperature ranges reflected occupancy of different habitats; coastal mixed/stratified and offshore subtropical/tropical waters. Furthermore, individuals that moved offshore and into more southern latitudes off Africa, exhibited a distinct daily cycle of deep dives (00:00–12:00, 200 m–700 m; 12:00–00:00, 0–300 m), experiencing a more extreme range of temperatures (6.8–27.4 °C), including cooler minimum temperatures, than those remaining in European coastal habitat (9.2–17.6 °C). Collectively, these findings challenge the supposition that temperature serves as a universal driver of seasonal dispersal from coastal seas and prompts further studies of deep-water forays in offshore areas.

Environ Biol Fish (2022). DOI: 10.1007/s10641-021-01202-8


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