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The effects of El Niño–La Niña on reproductive parameters of elephant seals feeding in the Bellingshausen Sea

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Abstract Aim 

To assess the impacts of El Niño–La Niña events on the pup weaning mass and diet of female southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) feeding in the Bellingshausen Sea, Antarctica, and to understand the ecological processes that drive these impacts. Location 

Atlantic southern elephant seal weaning mass and diet were measured at King George Island (62º14′ S, 58º30′ W). Feeding areas for pregnant female seals from King George Island are located west of Alexander Island in the Bellingshausen Sea. Methods 

Data on weaning mass were collected between 1985 and 1994 during the breeding season (September–November). Moulting females were anaesthetized and cephalopod beaks were isolated and identified from stomach contents obtained from stomach lavages. Sea-surface temperature anomaly (SSTA) data for the ‘El Niño 3.4’ geographical region (5º N–5º S, 120º W–170º W) were used to define El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event years (grouped as El Niño, La Niña and Neutral) as well as the strength of each ENSO event year. Using data from the US National Center for Environmental Prediction, temperature, sea ice concentration and atmospheric pressure anomalies in the Bellingshausen Sea were calculated from March to August, corresponding to the feeding period of pregnant female seals. Results 

Positive temperature anomalies and negative pressure anomalies in the Bellingshausen Sea were observed during La Niña years and negative temperature anomalies and positive pressure anomalies during El Niño years. These data correlate with sea ice concentration anomalies, which are highly negative during La Niña years and highly positive during El Niño years. Warm temperature conditions in the Bellingshausen Sea during La Niña years are strongly related to both higher weaning mass in elephant seals and to an increase in squid beaks in the stomach contents of females. Main conclusions 

It is possible that higher elephant seal weaning masses in La Niña years correlate with warmer waters in the Bellingshausen Sea leading to the rapid growth of squid and their more frequent descents to depths frequented by elephant seals. This results in increased predation by pregnant females, leading to a greater mass among weaned pups. This hypothesis may guide future research about interactions between climate and the marine biosphere.
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Keywords: Bellingshausen Sea; ENSO; King George Island; Mirounga leonina; Psychroteuthis glacialis; elephant seal; squid

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Centro Nacional Patagónico (CENPAT-CONICET), Boulevard Alm. Brown 3500, Puerto Madryn, Chubut, Argentina 2: Dirección General de Catastro e Información Territorial (DGCeIT), Provincia del Chubut, Alejandro Maiz 169, Rawson, Chubut, Argentina 3: Cree Regional Authority, 277 Duke Street, Montreal, Canada

Publication date: February 1, 2008

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