Royal Society Publishing

You are what you eat: describing the foraging ecology of southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) using blubber fatty acids

C. J. A. Bradshaw , M. A. Hindell , N. J. Best , K. L. Phillips , G. Wilson , P. D. Nichols

Abstract

Understanding the trophodynamics of marine ecosystems requires data on the temporal and spatial variation in predator diet but, particularly for wide-ranging species, these data are often unavailable. The southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) consumes large quantities of fish and squid prey in the Southern Ocean relative to other marine mammals; however, how diet varies relative to seasonal and spatial foraging behaviour is unknown. We used fatty acid (FA) signature analysis of 63 blubber cores from adult female M. leonina over three seasons (winter 1999, summer 2000 and winter 2001) to determine diet structure. We detected significant differences between seasons and between the main foraging regions (Antarctic continental shelf versus pelagic). We used the FA profiles from 53 fish, squid and krill species to construct a discriminant function that would classify each seal, from its blubber sample as having a fish– or squid–FA profile. We determined that a higher proportion of M. leonina had fish–dominated diets during the winter and when foraging around the Antarctic continental shelf, and the majority had more squid–dominated diets during the summer when foraging pelagically. Thus, we were able to measure the coarse–scale diet structure of a major marine predator using FA profiles, and estimate its associated seasonal and temporal variation.

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