, Volume 158, Issue 3, pp 649-663
Date: 05 Dec 2010

The influence of subsurface thermal structure on the diving behavior of northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus) during the breeding season

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Abstract

In the heterogeneous marine environment, predators can increase foraging success by targeting physical oceanographic features, which often aggregate prey. For northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus), two prevalent oceanographic features characterize foraging areas during summer in the Bering Sea: a stable thermocline and a subsurface “cold pool”. The objective of this study was to examine the influence of these features on foraging behavior by equipping fur seals from St. Paul Island (Alaska, USA) with time-depth recorders that also measured water temperature. Foraging bout variables (e.g., mean dive depth and percent time diving in a bout) were compared with respect to subsurface thermal characteristics (thermocline presence and strength and cold pool presence). Over 74% of bouts occurred in association with strong thermoclines (temperature change > 5°C). Few differences were found for dive behavior in relation to the presence of a thermocline and the cold pool, but for epipelagic bouts, a strong thermocline resulted in increased bottom times, number of dive wiggles, and percent time diving when compared to moderate thermoclines. There was also a positive relationship between mean dive depth and thermocline depth. The combination of increasing foraging effort in areas with strong thermoclines and diving to depths closely related to the thermocline indicates this feature is important foraging habitat for northern fur seals and may act to concentrate prey and increase foraging success. By recognizing the environmental features northern fur seals use to find prey, managers will be better equipped to identify and protect foraging habitat that is important to northern fur seals, and possibly other marine predators in the Bering Sea.

Communicated by M. E. Hauber.