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Looking at the unseen: combining animal bio-logging and stable isotopes to reveal a shift in the ecological niche of a deep diving predator

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Understanding how marine top predators exploit their environment is a central topic in marine ecology. Among all methodologies used to investigate this part of ecology, electronic devices are very useful to track animals' movements and foraging habitats, but they do not provide any dietary information. Stable isotopes provide information on trophic levels but remain imprecise to identify small spatial-scale habitats. In this study, we combined the two approaches to obtain a synoptic view of the foraging behaviour variability of southern elephant seals Mirounga leonina. Our results suggested marked differences in distribution, diving behaviour, foraging habitats, trophic levels, and dietary habits of elephant seals according to their sex and age. Thus, we characterized main foraging habitats over the Kerguelen-Heard Plateau and the Antarctic shelf for juvenile males, while females foraged mainly in oceanic waters of the Polar Frontal Zone and the Antarctic Zone. In addition, we highlighted the ontogeny of niche partitioning in this sexually dimorphic species. While females did not exhibit a major dietary shift in relation to their age and their breeding status, a different picture emerged for males. Young males had a trophic level identical to that of all females. However, at 3–4 yr of age, males showed a progressive increase in trophic level. The inter-annual combination of bio-logging and stable isotopes could provide a powerful tool to investigate possible shifts in ecological niche between years according to environmental changes.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: September 1, 2010

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