A lifetime at depth: vertical distribution of southern elephant seals in the water column

Abstract

Although numerous studies have addressed the migration and dive behaviour of southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina), questions remain about their habitat use in the marine environment. We report on the vertical use of the water column in the species and the potential lifetime implications for southern elephant seals from Marion Island. Long-term mark-resight data were used to complement vertical habitat use for 35 known individuals tagged with satellite-relay data loggers, resulting in cumulative depth use extrapolated for each individual over its estimated lifespan. Seals spent on average 77.59% of their lives diving at sea, 7.06% at the sea surface, and 15.35% hauled out on land. Some segregation was observed in maximum dive depths and depth use between male and female animals—males evidently being physiologically more capable of exploiting increased depths. Females and males spent 86.98 and 80.89% of their lives at sea, respectively. While at sea, all animals spent more time between 300 and 400 m depth, than any other depth category. Males and females spent comparable percentages of their lifetimes below 100 m depth (males: 65.54%; females: 68.92%), though males spent 8.98% of their lives at depths in excess of 700 m, compared to females’ 1.84% at such depths. Adult males often performed benthic dives in excess of 2,000 m, including the deepest known recorded dive of any air-breathing vertebrate (>2,133 m). Our results provide a close approximation of vertical habitat use by southern elephant seals, extrapolated over their lifespans, and we discuss some physiological and developmental implications of their variable depth use.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Chris Oosthuizen, Mashudu Phalanndwa, Ryan Reisinger, Thomas Mufanadzo, Phathu Radzilani, Brent Stewart and Greg Hofmeyr for their important assistance in the field with deployments of satellite tags. We are also grateful to them and the remaining field assistants for their continued efforts with the mark-resighting of tagged seals. Martin Biuw provided valuable input on the handling and filtering of dive data from SRDLs and René Wolmarans assisted with dive analyses in the R environment. The Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (Germany), the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation (South Africa) and South African National Antarctic Programme are acknowledged for financial and logistical support. Louise Chilvers, Alejandro Carlini and three anonymous reviewers provided valuable criticism on previous versions of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to T. McIntyre.

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McIntyre, T., de Bruyn, P.J.N., Ansorge, I.J. et al. A lifetime at depth: vertical distribution of southern elephant seals in the water column. Polar Biol 33, 1037–1048 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0782-3

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Keywords

  • Southern elephant seals
  • Satellite-relay data loggers
  • Mark-resighting
  • Habitat use
  • Dive behaviour