• To pup or not to pup? Using physiology and dive behavior to answer the Weddell Seal's overwinter question

      Shero, Michelle R.; Mellish, Jo-Ann; Burns, Jennifer; Hardy, Sarah; Costa, Daniel; Buck, C. Loren (2015-08)
      Female Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii) haul-out on the fast-ice surrounding the Antarctic continent in October and November each year to give birth to and nurse their pups. Breeding follows directly after weaning (December) and the annual molt begins in January-February. Animals reduce foraging efforts during the lactation and molting periods, but very little is known regarding the influence of this reduced activity on physiological condition. After a period of embryonic diapause, the annual molt coincides with embryo attachment and the start of active gestation. Consequently, female physiological condition at this time may influence reproductive success the following year. Overall female health and the ability to forage successfully throughout the gestation period (austral winter) may impact the likelihood that a pregnancy is brought to term. Therefore, this study tested whether overwinter changes in Weddell seal physiology and foraging efforts are reflected in reproductive outcomes the following year (i.e., to answer the over winter question of "to pup or not to pup?"). From 2010-2012, 100 (January-February: n = 53; October-November: n = 47) adult female Weddell seals were captured in Erebus Bay, Antarctica to assess overwinter changes in physiological condition and/or dive behavior that may be associated with reproductive success. Morphometric measurements and isotopic dilution procedures revealed that female Weddell seals gain ~10-15% of their body mass across the winter period, primarily in the form of blubber and lipid mass. The proportion of mass and lipid gain was similar regardless of whether females returned the following year and successfully gave birth, or did not produce a pup. Further, the amount of mass and energy acquired across gestation in the Weddell seal was markedly less than previously reported for other phocid species. Despite changes in activity patterns and body composition, Weddell seals maintained blood hemoglobin and muscle myoglobin concentrations across the winter. Therefore, Weddell seal total body oxygen stores and calculated aerobic dive limit (cADL) were conserved. This ensures that females have the physiological capabilities to effectively forage directly following the annual molt when they are at their leanest and must regain body mass and lipid stores. Although aerobic capacities did not change, dive effort varied considerably throughout the austral winter. Proxies of dive effort (duration, depth, %dives > cADL) were highest just after the molt (January-February) and just prior to the subsequent pupping season (August-September). Additionally, the proportion of each day spent diving increased mid-winter. Females that were observed the following year with a pup significantly increased all indices of foraging effort during the austral winter as compared to females that returned without a pup. This study is the first to identify and measure differences in dive efforts due to reproductive status, and indicates that successful reproduction is associated with greater foraging effort.