How seals divide up the world: environment, life history, and conservation
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Pinnipeds display a remarkable variation in life history adaptations while successfully inhabiting almost every marine environment. We explore how they have done this by grouping the world’s pinniped species according to their environmental conditions, mating systems, lactation strategies, and timing of life histories. Next, we tested whether any of these clusters provide information about risk of extinction (using the International Union for Nature and the Conservation of Natural Resources status ranks). Seals at risk were not characterized by differences in lactation pattern (22% short vs. 46% long), mating system (24% multi-male vs. 35% harems), or timing of life history events (23% fast vs. 42% slow) but did differ based on four environmental groupings. Grouping traits (rather than seals) described two clusters: one that included the environmental trait, primary productivity, and a second one that included all other environmental variables (seasonality, latitude, and temperature). Based on this result and theoretical considerations, we plotted seals according to energy (primary productivity) and variation (seasonality) and found a pattern analogous to that of the same four groups determined by cluster analysis of all environmental variables. Of the two pinniped groups representing low variation (equatorial and high productivity), ten of 21 seal species have been designated at risk, in contrast to none of the 13 seal species adapted to high variation. We conclude that seals appear to be best adapted to seasonal environments and thus, conservation efforts may benefit by concentrating on species inhabiting less variable environments.