Turning left to stay right: A unique test of lateralization across the full range of three-dimensional foraging maneuvers in blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus)

Prey-capture tactics and their associated kinematic processes are reinforced through repetition, outcome, and prey capture success.  Lateralized prey capture behaviors involving right-side dominant strategies, which utilize neurophysiological connections that increase stereotyped foraging behavior efficiency, are common across several animal taxa. However, most studies involve terrestrial animals feeding in a single plane and/or in laboratory conditions and fail to represent foraging in dynamic 3-dimensional environments that marine mammals inhabit. Using motion-sensing tag data from 58 deployments on blue whales (n=3,272 feeding events), we measured substantially different kinematic tactics from the conventional lateralized foraging paradigm. This was only evident when their full range of foraging behaviors was analyzed in the context of empirically measured dynamic prey environments.  We find population-level asymmetries in the most common feeding behaviors: a right-side lateralization bias (66% of whales) for the most common and basic feeding tactics (90° lunge feeding rolls) and a unique left-side lateralization bias (73% of whales) in the most kinematically complex feeding strategies (360°rolls).   Conversely, 180°rolls show anti-symmetry, or no significant directional bias.  Strong evidence (p < 0 .001) of lateralization across multiple feeding behaviors was evident within individuals.   Left-side lateralized 360° rolls occur more frequently when whales target smaller and shallower prey patches from below.  These acrobatic, ambush-feeding strikes occur at significantly steeper pitch angles as whales turn to the left, presumably maintaining visual connection to prey with the right eye. Although these results demonstrate both right- and left-side biased feeding behaviors, both adaptive strategies are likely driven by right-side lateralization where fine-motor activities are controlled predominantly by the left side of the brain.  These data support the conclusion that visual links between right eye vision largely inform fine-scale kinematic maneuvering for predators foraging in three dimensions, but suggest that in dynamic natural environments this may manifest as a left-side kinematic bias in feeding strategies.


Friedlaender, A., E. Hazen, D. Cade, J. Calambokidis, B. Southall, A. Stimpert, J. Goldbogen. 2017. Turning left to stay right: A unique test of lateralization across the full range of three-dimensional foraging maneuvers in blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus). Abstract (Proceedings) 22nd Biennial on the Biology of Marine Mammals, Halifax, Nova Scotia, October 22-27, 2017.