Mark-resight estimates of seasonal variation in harbor seal abundance and site fidelity

Abstract

Monitoring trends in abundance of pinnipeds typically involves counting seals at terrestrial haul-out sites during the breeding season. Counts of seals made at other times of the year are typically lower; however, it is often unknown whether this is because fewer animals are present or whether lower counts simply reflect a reduction in haul-out probability. Here we illustrate how photo-identification data from an individual-based study of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) can be used to estimate seasonal variation in abundance and site fidelity. Monthly data collected over a two-year period were analyzed using a mark-recapture mark-resight model accounting for individuals transitioning between observable and unobservable states. Levels of site fidelity were high throughout the year and abundance estimates showed no seasonal pattern. This suggests that individual seals used haul-out sites to the same extent throughout the year, and that peaks in counts during the breeding season are a result of seasonal changes in haul-out probability. The results of this study have implications for understanding population sub-structuring, gene flow and disease spread.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank the Mammal Conservation Trust and Talisman Energy (UK) Ltd. for financial support.

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Correspondence to Line S. Cordes.

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Cordes, L.S., Thompson, P.M. Mark-resight estimates of seasonal variation in harbor seal abundance and site fidelity. Popul Ecol 57, 467–472 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10144-015-0496-z

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Keywords

  • Haul-out probability
  • Individual-based
  • Mark-recapture
  • Phoca vitulina
  • Photo-identification
  • Population dynamics