Exploring Linkages between Abiotic Oceanographic Processes and a Top-trophic Predator in an Antarctic Ecosystem
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Climatic variation affects the physical and biological components of ecosystems, and global-climate models predict enhanced sensitivity in polar regions, raising concern for Antarctic animal populations that may show direct responses to changes in sea-ice distribution and extent, or indirect responses to changes in prey distribution and abundance. Here, we show that over a 30-year period in the Ross Sea, average weaning masses of Weddell seals, Leptonychotes weddellii, varied strongly among years and were correlated to large-scale climatic and oceanographic variations. Foraging success of pregnant seals (reflected by weaning mass the following pupping season) increased during summers characterized by reduced sea-ice cover and positive phases of the southern oscillation. These results demonstrate a correlation between environmental variation and an important life history characteristic (weaning mass) of an Antarctic marine mammal. Understanding the mechanisms that link climatic variation and animal life history characteristics will contribute to understanding both population dynamics and global climatic processes. For the world’s most southerly distributed mammal species, the projected trend of increasing global climate change raises concern because increasing sea-ice trends in the Ross Sea sector of Antarctica will likely reduce populations due to reduced access to prey as expressed through declines in body condition and reproductive performance.
KeywordsAntarctica El Nino southern oscillation sea-ice extent climatic variation Weddell seal Leptonychotes weddellii
Funding for this project was provided by a National Science Foundation grant, OPP−0225110. The data were collected under various National Science Foundation grants to R. A. Garrott and J. J. Rotella at Montana State University, D. B. Siniff at the University of Minnesota, M.A. Castellini at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and J. W. Testa at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. We thank all the personnel who participated in the long-term Weddell seal demography study since 1969. We also thank Doug DeMaster and two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on an earlier version of this paper.
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