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Environmental and physiological determinants of successful foraging by naive southern elephant seal pups during their first trip to sea

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The ability to forage successfully during their first trip to sea is fundamental to the ultimate survival of newly weaned southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina). However, there is considerable variation in the body mass and fat content of seal pups at weaning, which results in some individuals having larger energy and oxygen stores than others, which may confer advantages on them. The diving behaviour of 21 newly weaned seals was studied using satellite relayed data loggers. Seals were captured at Macquarie Island in December 1995 and 1996, approximately 4 weeks after weaning. Two groups of seals were specifically targeted: a heavy group from the top quartile of weaning masses (n = 6) and a light group from the lower quartile (n = 15). Most of the seals made dives in excess of 100 m depth and 5 min before final departure from the island. However, for the first 60-80 d, all of the seals exhibited behaviour quite distinct from the patterns reported for older conspecifics, and made relatively shallow (100 ± 39 m; mean ± SD) and short (5.7 ± 1.23 min) dives. During this time the seals spent 74.3 ± 12.6% of each day diving, and the depth of the dives did not follow any diurnal pattern. The diving behaviour of all seals changed abruptly when they started on their return to land. During this time their behaviour was more like that of adults: they made deeper (159 ± 9 m) and longer dives (9.01 ± 1.69 min) than previously, and the dives showed a strong diurnal pattern in depth. There is no obvious explanation for this change in behaviour, although its abrupt nature suggests that it is unlikely to have been due to physiological changes in the seals. The size of the seals at weaning was an important influence on diving behaviour. Heavy weaners made significantly deeper (130 ± 40 m) and longer dives (7.36 ± 0.55 min) than light weaners (88 ± 32 m and 5.04 ± 0.64 min, respectively). This indicates that smaller seals are constrained to some extent by their physiological capabilities, which perhaps requires some individuals to adopt different foraging strategies.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: November 1, 1999

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  • Published since 1929, this monthly journal reports on primary research contributed by respected international scientists in the broad field of zoology, including behaviour, biochemistry and physiology, developmental biology, ecology, genetics, morphology and ultrastructure, parasitology and pathology, and systematics and evolution. It also invites experts to submit review articles on topics of current interest.
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