Manta rays Manta alfredi are present all year round at Lady Elliot Island (LEI) in the southern Great Barrier Reef, Australia, with peaks in abundance during autumn and winter. Drivers influencing these fluctuations in abundance of M. alfredi at the site remain uncertain. Based on daily count, behavioural, weather and oceanographic data collected over a three-year period, this study examined the link between the relative number of sightings of manta rays at LEI, the biophysical environment, and the habitat use of individuals around the LEI reef using generalised additive models. The response variable in each of the three generalised additive models was number of sightings (per trip at sea) of cruising, cleaning or foraging M. alfredi. We used a set of eleven temporal, meteorological, biological, oceanographic and lunar predictor variables. Results for cruising, cleaning and foraging M. alfredi explained 27.5%, 32.8% and 36.3% of the deviance observed in the respective models and highlighted five predictors (year, day of year, wind speed, chlorophyll-a concentration and fraction of moon illuminated) as common influences to the three models. There were more manta rays at LEI in autumn and winter, slower wind speeds, higher productivity, and around the new and full moon. The winter peak in sightings of foraging M. alfredi was found to precede peaks in cleaning and cruising activity around the LEI reef, which suggests that enhanced food availability may be a principal driver for this seasonal aggregation. A spatial analysis of behavioural observations highlighted several sites around the LEI reef as 'multi-purpose' areas where cleaning and foraging activities commonly occur, while the southern end of the reef is primarily a foraging area. The use of extensive citizen science datasets, such as those collected by dive operators in this study, is encouraged as they can provide valuable insights into a species' ecology.
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Jaine, F. R. A., Couturier, L. I. E., Weeks, S. J., Townsend, K. A., Bennett, M. B., Fiora, K., & Richardson, A. J. (2012). When giants turn up: sighting trends, environmental influences and habitat use of the manta ray Manta alfredi at a coral reef. PLoS ONE, 7(10), e46170-1-e46170-10. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0046170