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The Elephant Seal: Linking Phenotypic Variation with Behavior and Fitness in a Sexually Dimorphic Phocid

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Ethology and Behavioral Ecology of Phocids

Abstract

Southern (Mirounga leonina) and northern elephant seals (M. angustirostris) are extreme in nearly all aspects of their behavior, from fasting to fighting to diving to navigation. Behavioral research over the past six decades has provided unparalleled insight into key elephant seal traits that drive survival and reproductive success. Specifically, the extensive study of northern and southern elephant seals using innovative methodologies and technologies has shown how behavior during reproduction, molt, and foraging interact to drive the evolution of body mass. Their extreme sexual dimorphism has led to pronounced niche segregation across three-dimensional space, allowing a synthetic assessment of physiological constraints in an ecological context. Additionally, their behavioral feats have made elephant seals successful remote sensing platforms for measuring the physical and biological characteristics of the open ocean. Promising directions for future research include interactions between intrinsic and extrinsic factors and their relationship to individual quality, especially for juveniles and adult males.

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Acknowledgements

The authors wish to thank the pioneers of elephant seal behavior. The comments and insights of Dr. Dan Costa, Dr. Elizabeth McHuron, Dr. Nico deBruyn, Rachel Holser, Dr. Patrick Robinson, Dr. Colleen Reichmuth, and Dr. Caroline Casey significantly improved the chapter. This work was supported by National Science Foundation and President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program postdoctoral fellowships to RSB. Photographs were taken under National Marine Fisheries Services marine mammal permit #19108 and 87–1851. The ARGOS seal tracking data were sourced from the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS). IMOS is a national collaborative research infrastructure supported by the Australian Government. It is operated by a consortium of institutions as an unincorporated joint venture, with the University of Tasmania as the lead agent. The International Argo Program provided the Argo floats hydrographic data (https://portal.aodn.org.au). This work was further supported by the French Polar Institute (program 109: PI. H. Weimerskirch and 1201: PI. C. Gilbert and C. Guinet), the SNO-MEMO, and CNES-TOSCA.

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Beltran, R.S., Hindell, M.A., McMahon, C.R. (2022). The Elephant Seal: Linking Phenotypic Variation with Behavior and Fitness in a Sexually Dimorphic Phocid. In: Costa, D.P., McHuron, E.A. (eds) Ethology and Behavioral Ecology of Phocids . Ethology and Behavioral Ecology of Marine Mammals. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-88923-4_11

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