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Topographic spatial characterisation of grey seal Halichoerus grypus breeding habitat at a sub-seal size spatial grain

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Expansion within breeding colonies may critically depend upon the availability of suitable breeding habitat. Here we use topographic modelling in a GIS to characterise suitable pupping habitat and accurately predict the pattern of colonisation in an expanding grey seal breeding colony – the Isle of May (Scotland). We use high resolution images from large format aerial photographs of the colony to generate sub-metre accurate Digital Terrain Models (DTMs). GIS modelling with these DTMs provides topographic measures of elevation, slope and ease of access to sea and freshwater pools at a 2 m grid cell size. Seal locations during the 1994 breeding season, with sex-age class, were also digitised from the same images. We examine how the physical attributes of cells (locations) with and without pups differ and identify areas suitable for pupping but remaining unoccupied during 1994. We predict patterns of future colonisation by characterising areas differentiated by the densities of pups within 5 m grid cells and identifying areas, both occupied or unoccupied, with a potential for increased future pupping densities. Our predictions were tested by examining pup distributions observed in the 1998 breeding season. Occupied sites were significantly closer to freshwater pools and access to the sea (p<0.001) than unoccupied sites suggesting that proximity to water may restrict colony expansion before all areas of suitably flat terrain are occupied. All pup density classes occurred in sites with similar slope values and distance to pools. However, higher pupping densities occurred closer to access points (p=0.014). Pup densities observed in 1998 revealed that our 1994 predictions were accurate (p<0.0001). Only 12% of 466 grid cells had higher densities in 1998 than predicted, of which 88% differed by only 1 pup. These incorrectly classified cells occurred at the expanding edge of the colony (in a more topographically homogenous area) and at the main access points from the sea (major traffic zones). These results demonstrate the value of the accurate quantification of topographic parameters at the appropriate spatial grain (in this case below the size of the individual) for use in habitat classification and predictions of habitat utilisation.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 1, 2001

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