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Water column use and forage strategies of female southern elephant seals from Marion Island

McIntyre, Trevor, Bornemann, Horst, Plötz, Joachim, Tosh, Cheryl A., Bester, Marthán N.
Marine biology 2011 v.158 no.9 pp. 2125-2139
Mirounga leonina, animals, biogeography, females, forage, foraging, islands, predators
The at-sea behaviour of marine top predators provides valuable insights into the distribution of prey species and strategies used by predators to exploit patchily distributed resources. We describe the water column usage and dive strategies of female southern elephant seals from Marion Island tracked between 2004 and 2008. Dives representing increases in forage effort were identified using a method that combines dive type analyses and the calculation of relative amounts of time that animals spend in the bottom phases of dives. Results from this analysis indicate that female elephant seals from Marion Island tend to display lower levels of forage effort closer to the island and display intensive opportunistic forage bouts that occur at a minimum distance of approximately 215 km from the island. Females from Marion Island dived deeper and for longer periods of time, compared to females from other populations. Most animals displayed positive diel vertical migration, evidently foraging pelagically on vertically migrating prey. A few animals displayed periods of reverse (negative) diel vertical migration, however, diving to deeper depths at night, compared to daytime. This behaviour is difficult to explain and prey species targeted during such periods unknown. Our results illustrate plasticity in foraging behaviour of southern elephant seals, as well as inter-population differences in forage strategies.