Vertical Movement Patterns and Ontogenetic Niche Expansion in the Tiger Shark, Galeocerdo cuvier
Sharks are top predators in many marine ecosystems and can impact community dynamics, yet many shark populations are undergoing severe declines primarily due to overfishing. Obtaining species-specific knowledge on shark spatial ecology is important to implement adequate management strategies for the effective conservation of these taxa. This is particularly relevant concerning highly-mobile species that use wide home ranges comprising coastal and oceanic habitats, such as tiger sharks, Galeocerdo cuvier. We deployed satellite tags in 20 juvenile tiger sharks off northeastern Brazil to assess the effect of intrinsic and extrinsic factors on depth and temperature usage. Sharks were tracked for a total of 1184 d and used waters up to 1112 m in depth. The minimum temperature recorded equaled 4°C. All sharks had a clear preference for surface (< 5 m) waters but variability in depth usage was observed as some sharks used mostly shallow (< 60 m) waters whereas others made frequent incursions into greater depths. A diel behavioral shift was detected, with sharks spending considerably more time in surface (< 10 m) waters during the night. Moreover, a clear ontogenetic expansion in the vertical range of tiger shark habitat was observed, with generalized linear models estimating a ~4-fold increase in maximum diving depth from 150- to 300-cm size-classes. The time spent in the upper 5 m of the water column did not vary ontogenetically but shark size was the most important factor explaining the utilization of deeper water layers. Young-of-the-year tiger sharks seem to associate with shallow, neritic habitats but they progressively move into deeper oceanic habitats as they grow larger. Such an early plasticity in habitat use could endow tiger sharks with access to previously unavailable prey, thus contributing to a wider ecological niche.