Sarah S. Kienle, Aliya Cacanindin, Traci Kendall, Beau Richter, Courtney Ribeiro-French, Leann Castle, Gwen Lentes, Daniel P. Costa, and Rita S. Mehta

Animals use diverse feeding strategies to capture and consume prey, with many species switching between strategies to accommodate different prey. Many marine animals exhibit behavioral flexibility when feeding to deal with spatial and temporal heterogeneity in prey resources. However, little is known about flexibility in the feeding behavior of many large marine predators. Here, we documented the feeding behavior and kinematics of the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal (Neomonachus schauinslandi, n=7) through controlled feeding trials. Seals were fed multiple prey types (e.g., night smelt, capelin, squid, and herring) that varied in size and shape to examine behavioral flexibility in feeding. Hawaiian monk seals primarily used suction feeding (91% of all feeding trials) across all prey types, but biting, specifically pierce feeding, was also observed (9% of all feeding trials). Suction feeding was characterized by shorter temporal events, a smaller maximum gape and gape angle, and a fewer number of jaw motions than pierce feeding; suction feeding kinematic performance was also more variable compared to pierce feeding. Seals showed behavioral flexibility in their use of the two strategies. Suction feeding was used most frequently when targeting small to medium sized prey and biting was used with increasing frequency on larger prey. The feeding kinematics differed between feeding strategies and prey types, showing that Hawaiian monk seals adjusted their behaviors to particular feeding contexts. Hawaiian monk seals are opportunistic marine predators and their ability to adapt their feeding strategy and behavior to specific foraging scenarios allows them to target diverse prey resources.

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