• Bridging the gap between pupping and molting phenology: behavioral and ecological drivers in Weddell seals

      Beltran, Roxanne Santina; Burns, Jennifer; Breed, Greg; Testa, J. Ward; O'Brien, Diane; Barnes, Brian (2018-08)
      In Antarctica, the narrow window of favorable conditions constrains the life history phenology of female Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii) such that pupping, breeding, foraging, and molting occur in quick succession during summer; however, the carry-over effects from one life history event to another are unclear. In this dissertation, I characterize the phenological links between molting and pupping, and evaluate feeding behavior and ice dynamics as mechanistic drivers. First, I review the contributions of natural and sexual selection to the evolution of molting strategies in the contexts of energetics, habitat, function, and physiology. Many polar birds and mammals adhere to an analogous biannual molting strategy wherein the thin, brown summer feathers/fur are replaced with thick, white winter feathers/fur. Polar pinnipeds are an exception to the biannual molting paradigm; most rely on blubber for insulation and exhibit a single molt per year. Second, I describe the duration and timing of the Weddell seal molt based on data from 4,000 unique individuals. In adult females, I found that successful reproduction delays the molt by approximately two weeks relative to non-reproductive individuals. Using time-depth recorder data from 59 Weddell seals at the crucial time between pupping and molting, I report a striking mid-summer shallowing of seal dive depths that appears to follow a vertical migration of fishes during the summer phytoplankton bloom. The seals experience higher foraging success during this vertical shift in the prey distribution, which allows them to re-gain mass quickly before the molt. Across four years of study, later ice break-out resulted in later seal dive shallowing and later molt. In combination, the data presented in this dissertation suggest that molting, foraging, and pupping phenology are linked in Weddell seals and are affected by ice break-out timing.