Decomposing the variance in southern elephant seal weaning mass : partitioning environmental signals and maternal effects



Permanent link to this Item
Journal Title
Link to Journal
Journal ISSN
Volume Title

University of Cape Town

Predator populations are likely to respond to bottom-up processes, but there remains limited understanding of how wide-ranging marine predators respond to environmentally driven temporal variation in food availability. Widespread declines of several Southern Ocean predators, including southern elephant seals Mirounga leonina, have been attributed to decreases in food availability following environmental changes. We used linear mixed models to examine temporal process variance in weaning mass (a key fitness component) of southern elephant seals at Marion Island over a 27-year period (1986– 2013). We quantified the contribution of within- and between-year covariates to the total phenotypic variance in weaning mass and determined whether the observed reversal of population decline was associated with a continued increase in weaning mass, suggesting improvement in per capita food availability to adult females. Weaning mass initially increased rapidly with maternal age, but reached an asymptote when females were nine years old. Longitudinal data examining between-individual maternal differences suggested latent, age-independent maternal influences on weaning mass. Between-year differences accounted for only 6% of the total phenotypic variance in weaning mass. We found no evidence for a systematic trend in weaning mass, but model predicted weaning mass was 8.70 kg (95% CI ¼ 2.14– 14.73) lower during the 1980s, suggesting that food limitation may have been most severe during these years when the population was declining. Model support for a population size effect was entirely driven by the low weaning mass and comparatively high (but declining) population size from 1986 to 1988; subsequent variation in population size had no detectable influence on weaning mass. Remotely sensed chlorophyll-a concentration within the seals’ foraging distribution explained 45% of the between-year variation (1998–2013, n ¼ 9) in weaning mass, with higher weaning mass in years of positive chlorophyll-a anomalies. Environmental variation associated with variability in the Southern Annular Mode poorly predicted temporal variation in weaning mass. Our long-term data on elephant seal weaning mass provides a perspective on variation in food availability in a pelagic environment which is poorly known. Examining the long-term regionally specific effects of environmental variability aids our understanding of how these predators interact with their environment.