Jellyfish distribution in space and time predicts leatherback sea turtle hot spots in the Northwest Atlantic
Leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) migrate to temperate Canadian Atlantic waters to feed on gelatinous zooplankton (‘jellyfish’) every summer. However, the spatio-temporal connection between predator foraging and prey-field dynamics has not been studied at the large scales over which these migratory animals occur. We use 8903 tows of groundfish survey jellyfish bycatch data between 2006–2017 to reveal spatial jellyfish hot spots, and matched these data to satellite-telemetry leatherback data over time and space. We found highly significant overlap of jellyfish and leatherback distribution on the Scotian Shelf (r = 0.89), moderately strong correlations of jellyfish and leatherback spatial hot spots in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (r = 0.59), and strong correlations in the Bay of Fundy (r = 0.74), which supports much lower jellyfish density. Over time, jellyfish bycatch data revealed a slight northward range shift in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, consistent with gradual warming of these waters. Two-stage generalized linear modelling corroborated that sea surface temperature, year, and region were significant predictors of jellyfish biomass, suggesting a climate signal on jellyfish distribution, which may shift leatherback critical feeding habitat over time. These findings are useful in predicting dynamic habitat use for endangered leatherback turtles, and can help to anticipate large-scale changes in their distribution in response to climate-related changes in prey availability.