N-dimensional animal energetic niches clarify behavioural options in a variable marine environment

Rory P. Wilson, Clive R. McMahon, Flavio Quintana, Esteban Frere, Alejandro Scolaro, Graeme C. Hays, Corey J A Bradshaw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Citations (Scopus)


Animals respond to environmental variation by exhibiting a number of different behaviours and/or rates of activity, which result in corresponding variation in energy expenditure. Successful animals generally maximize efficiency or rate of energy gain through foraging. Quantification of all features that modulate energy expenditure can theoretically be modelled as an animal energetic niche or power envelope; with total power being represented by the vertical axis and n-dimensional horizontal axes representing extents of processes that affect energy expenditure. Such an energetic niche could be used to assess the energetic consequences of animals adopting particular behaviours under various environmental conditions. This value of this approach was tested by constructing a simple mechanistic energetics model based on data collected from recording devices deployed on 41 free-living Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus), foraging from four different colonies in Argentina and consequently catching four different types of prey. Energy expenditure was calculated as a function of total distance swum underwater (horizontal axis 1) and maximum depth reached (horizontal axis 2). The resultant power envelope was invariant, irrespective of colony location, but penguins from the different colonies tended to use different areas of the envelope. The different colony solutions appeared to represent particular behavioural options for exploiting the available prey and demonstrate how penguins respond to environmental circumstance (prey distribution), the energetic consequences that this has for them, and how this affects the balance of energy acquisition through foraging and expenditure strategy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)646-656
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Behavioural plasticity
  • Energetic niche
  • Energy expenditure
  • Magellanic penguin
  • Optimal strategy
  • Performance constraints
  • Power envelope
  • Spheniscus magellanicus
  • Survival


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