Extant aquatic mammals are a key component of aquatic ecosystems. Their morphology, ecological role and behaviour are, to a large extent, shaped by their feeding ecology. Nevertheless, the nature of this crucial aspect of their biology is often oversimplified and, consequently, misinterpreted. Here, we introduce a new framework that categorizes the feeding cycle of predatory aquatic mammals into four distinct functional stages (prey capture, manipulation and processing, water removal and swallowing), and details the feeding behaviours that can be employed at each stage. Based on this comprehensive scheme, we propose that the feeding strategies of living aquatic mammals form an evolutionary sequence that recalls the land-to-water transition of their ancestors. Our new conception helps to explain and predict the origin of particular feeding styles, such as baleen-assisted filter feeding in whales and raptorial ‘pierce’ feeding in pinnipeds, and informs the structure of present and past ecosystems.
- Received December 15, 2016.
- Accepted February 9, 2017.
- © 2017 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.