MEPS 312:277-290 (2006)  -  doi:10.3354/meps312277

Changes in diet and maternal attendance of South American sea lions indicate changes in the marine environment and prey abundance

Karim H. Soto1,2,*, Andrew W. Trites1, M. Arias-Schreiber2

1Marine Mammal Research Unit, University of British Columbia, Room 247, AERL, 2202 Main Mall, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z4, Canada
2Instituto del Mar del Peru (IMARPE), Esquina Gamarra y General Valle S/N Chucuito-Callao, Peru

ABSTRACT: Behavioural observations were made of South American sea lions Otaria flavescens in Peru to determine whether changes in their diet and maternal attendance patterns reflected physical changes in the marine environment and alterations in the abundance and distribution of prey. The study was conducted during the breeding season between 1998 and 2002, which was a period that encompassed a strong El Niño (1997 to 1998) and a moderate La Niña (1999 to 2001). Observations revealed strong linkages between maternal attendance patterns and the abundance of prey and oceanographic features close to the rookeries. Acute prey shortage during El Niño resulted in females increasing the length of their foraging trips and decreasing the time they spent onshore with their pups. In contrast, shorter times at sea and longer times onshore were observed during the favourable conditions of La Niña when preferred prey (anchovy and squat lobster) were more abundant near the rookeries. Pup mortalities increased when females spent more time at sea searching for prey and did not return frequently enough to nurse their pups. A larger diversity of prey species (particularly of demersal fishes) was consumed during El Niño when anchovy and lobster were less available. Females appeared to adjust their diets and maternal attendance patterns in response to annual changes in the abundance and distribution of prey. These observations suggested that diet and maternal responses reflect interannual fluctuations of the unpredictable Peruvian upwelling ecosystem, and implied that South American sea lions may be good indicators of relative changes in the distribution and abundance of marine resources.

KEY WORDS: South American sea lion · Otaria flavescens · Environmental change · Maternal attendance · Diet · El Niño · La Niña · Prey abundance

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