The largest animals to ever live owe their enormous size to feeding on the tiniest creatures in the sea, but their survival requires a minimum body size, Stanford-led research has found.

Minke whales in Antarctica were studied by researchers using instrumented tags that can measure various aspects of their feeding activity. (Image credit: Duke Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing. This research was conducted under National Marine Fisheries Service permit #23095)

Published March 13 in Nature Ecology & Evolution, the study focuses on the “rorqual whales,” a lineage of filter feeders that includes the blue whale, the largest animal of all time. The group is characterized by a lunging maneuver where individuals engulf an enormous amount of water along with their prey, which they then strain through fringed structures at the roof of their mouth.

By examining the smallest living species in this group – the Antarctic minke whale – the authors found that individuals need to grow to at least 4.5 meters (approximately 15 feet, or weighing 1-2 tons), the length of weaned minke juveniles, in order to eat enough food to survive.

“We’re working to define the upper and lower limits of life at physiological extremes,” said the study’s senior author Jeremy Goldbogen, an associate professor of oceans at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability who’s spent the last decade demystifying the basic biology of the world’s largest whales. “This is important given the pace of environmental change so we can determine which species are at greatest risk and how we manage populations into the future.”

Minkes at a minimum

To calculate the minimum size required for lunge-feeding whales, the team turned to a unique population of minkes that frequent bays along the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Unlike other minkes, which prefer fish, this population primarily forages for tiny animals known as krill.

“Our motivation for going to Antarctica was to observe this specific population,” said David Cade, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral scholar in the Goldbogen Lab. “Most minke whales are elusive and typically surface just one at a time, but this group exhibits more social behavior, giving us a higher chance of safely approaching them.”

Cade has led the development of cutting-edge technology to observe whale feeding behavior. The team uses suction cups to affix a “biologging tag” packed with sensors and cameras to an individual’s back so they can track its orientation and movement. By combining tag data with drone photography, they can document engulfment events and estimate a whale’s body length.

Based on 437 hours of biologging data, the authors calculated the minkes’ feeding rate compared to that of krill-feeding humpbacks and blues to identify potential size limitations. They found that minkes are about as energetically efficient as larger whales when they feed at night, since prey migrate to shallower depths and are therefore more accessible. However, they feed at far lower rates during the day.

“In the daytime, minke whales dove deeper than we predicted to find prey,” said Cade. “This means that they’re operating at maximum capacity, and can’t possibly forage any more given size constraints and the time it takes to lunge feed. At 4.5 meters in length, weaned minke whales are the smallest they can be while still eating enough food on their own to survive.”

Footage from the instrumented tags showing the lunge feeding behavior of a blue whale (left) and a minke whale (right). Additional measurements from the tags included depth, speed, and orientation of the whale carrying the tag. (Video credit: Stanford University, University of California, Santa Cruz, and the Cascadia Research Collective. This research was conducted under National Marine Fisheries Service permits #16111 and #23095)

A window into the future

According to the fossil record, whales became gigantic rather recently in evolutionary terms, approximately three to five million years ago. But a fundamental question remains: Did whales evolve to filter feed due to their large size, or did gigantism result from filter feeding?

The authors determined that it was a bit of both. Once whales evolved from eating one prey at a time to filter feeding many at once, the rise of gigantism was likely driven by an abundance of krill in prehistoric oceans, which favored their feeding style. Previous research shows that wind-driven upwelling and intense glacial cycles fueled denser patches of krill and allowed smaller animals to filter feed more efficiently.

Larger filter-feeding whales, which can engulf proportionally more water per gulp than smaller whales, then had an evolutionary advantage over their smaller counterparts, giving rise to the largest animals in Earth’s history. But it remains to be seen how whales will respond to future environmental change. For whales constrained by body size and operating at physiological extremes, like minkes and possibly blues, rapid environmental change could put them at greater risk of extinction.

“The next 10 million-dollar question is how climate change might affect krill populations,” said Goldbogen. “Depending on how krill fare, certain whale species will either win or lose in future oceans.”

Now that the research team has defined the minimum size for these ocean giants, more research is needed to determine whether blue whales – on the other end of the spectrum – are also living at the edge of their means or if they’re in the midst of evolving ever-larger before our eyes.

Goldbogen is also an associate professor, by courtesy, of biology. Co-authors Shirel Kahane-Rapport and William Gough are former PhD students in biology who are affiliated with Hopkins Marine Station. Cade is also affiliated with University of California, Santa Cruz. Additional co-authors are affiliated with Duke University, Oregon State University, the University of Queensland, and the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Washington.

This research received funding from the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Program, and Stanford University’s Terman Fellowship.

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Media Contacts

Katie Jewett, Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability:

David Cade, Oceans Department, Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability:

Jeremy Goldbogen, Oceans Department, Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability: