MEPS 339:271-282 (2007)  -  doi:10.3354/meps339271

Dimensions of diet segregation in grey seals Halichoerus grypus revealed through stable isotopes of carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N)

Strahan Tucker1,*, W. Don Bowen2, Sara J. Iverson1

1Department of Biology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
2Marine Fish Division, Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada

ABSTRACT: Although many studies have documented diets for terrestrial mammals, much less is known about prey selection in marine mammals. Variation in body size of terrestrial carnivores is correlated with mass of prey consumed, and predator size often determines dietary overlap. Grey seals Halichoerus grypus are a size-dimorphic phocid seal inhabiting the Northwest Atlantic, with males 1.5× larger than females. Stable isotopes of carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) provide useful tools for estimating trophic positions and carbon flow to consumers in food webs. δ13C and δ15N were analyzed for individual adult grey seals from Sable Island, Canada, between 1996 and 2001. Samples of skin were taken in May or September and the same animals were re-sampled when they returned to the breeding colony in January. In addition, samples were taken from juveniles (n = 29) in January 2004. δ13C and δ15N were also analyzed for 12 fish and 3 invertebrate species from the Scotian Shelf. Adult male (n = 36) and female (n = 36) grey seals exhibited significantly different δ13C and δ15N values (F1,70 = 22.40; p < 0.001). On average, males were more enriched in both δ13C and δ15N than females. While there were no differences between sex in juveniles, signatures were significantly different from adults (F2,101 = 28.05; p < 0.001). Comparison of isotope values from potential prey suggests that adult males feed more heavily on benthic prey, whereas adult females appear to feed more on pelagic prey. Juveniles also appear to feed more on pelagic prey. These results are consistent with known differences in dive patterns and foraging behaviour in this population. In addition, there was a positive effect of body size on both δ13C (t = 2.54, p = 0.014) and δ15N (t = 2.48, p = 0.016) and a positive relationship between δ15N and the rate of fat accumulation (kg d–1). These results suggest an underlying energetic basis to diet variation in grey seals. Finally, examination of the variance in stable isotope ratios suggested that while individual grey seals appear to be relative specialists in their diet, niche breadth was 1.5× greater in males than in females. On average, adult grey seals had a 2× higher niche breadth than juveniles.

KEY WORDS: Grey seal · Sexual size dimorphism · Diet segregation · Stable isotopes · Ontogeny · Energetics

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