Role of sociality in the response of killer whales to an additive mortality event
In highly social top predators, group living is an ecological strategy that enhances individual fitness, primarily through increased foraging success. Additive mortality events across multiple social groups in populations may affect the social structure, and therefore the fitness, of surviving individuals. This hypothesis was examined in a killer whale (Orcinus orca) population that experienced a 7-y period of severe additive mortality due to lethal interactions with illegal fishing vessels. Using both social and demographic analyses conducted on a unique long-term dataset encompassing periods before, during, and after this event, results indicated a decrease in both the number and the mean strength of associations of surviving individuals during the additive mortality period. A positive significant correlation between association strength and apparent survival suggested that the fitness of surviving individuals was impacted by the additive mortality event. After this event, individuals responded to the loss of relatives in their social groups by associating with a greater number of other social groups, likely to maintain a functional group size that maximized their foraging success. However, these associations were loose; individuals did not reassociate in highly stable social groups, and their survival remained low years after the mortality event. These findings demonstrate how the disruption of social structure in killer whales may lead to prolonged negative effects of demographic stress beyond an additive mortality event. More importantly, this study shows that sociality has a key role in the resilience of populations to human-induced mortality; this has major implications for the conservation of highly social and long-lived species.
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