• Fasting status of Steller sea lion pups

      Crawford, Stephanie G.; Coker, Robert; Rea, Lorrie D.; Breed, Greg; O'Hara, Todd (2021-12)
      Following population declines in species of concern, wildlife managers often seek to identify underlying causes to understand and predict population dynamics for better future management. Often, physiological and/or behavioral metrics are measurable markers of decline, and these are often detectable well before declines are measurable through population surveys. During the 1970's, 80's, and 90's Steller sea lion (SSL; Eumetopias jubatus) populations in the western portion of their breeding range declined by ~85%. Though declines in most regions have since stabilized or exhibited modest recovery, some subpopulations breeding in the Aleutian Islands continue to decline. In contrast, SSL subpopulations in eastern regions of their range have steadily grown since the 1970s. Prior studies on the maternal attendance behaviors of SSL have noted differences in the timing of parturition, the duration of the perinatal period, foraging trip duration of nursing females, and the duration of periods dams spend ashore tending their pups. Variability in these metrics has been associated with year, location, the dam's age and parity, environmental oscillations (i.e. El Niño Southern Oscillation), and pup age over the lactation period. This study utilized prior findings of predictable changes in metabolite concentrations while pups fasted during their mother's foraging trips as a new approach for assessing maternal attendance patterns. The distributions of fasting phase categories, assigned based on the relative concentrations of plasma betahydroxybutyrate and blood urea nitrogen, were compared across 12 subpopulations extending from eastern Russia along the coastal northern Pacific into southeastern Alaska from blood samples of 1528 SSL pups. Fasting phase categories were merged into Short and Long fasting durations to compare pups sparing critical proteins (relying on lipid reserves) to those with plasma profiles indicative of metabolic protein reliance (muscle & organ breakdown), respectively. Notably the subpopulations with the maximal (western Aleutian Islands) and minimal (eastern Aleutian Islands) observed proportions of Long fasting pups were in the same broad Aleutian Island region. Three metapopulations had significantly greater proportions of Long fasting pups: the western and central Aleutian Islands and the southern portion of southeastern Alaska. Due to contrasting population trends among these metapopulations, we suggest that both density-dependent and density-independent factors contributed to extended fasting durations in SSL pups.