MEPS 455:287-301 (2012)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps09601

Diet of a specialist in a changing environment: the crabeater seal along the western Antarctic Peninsula

L. A. Hückstädt1,*, J. M. Burns2, P. L. Koch3, B. I. McDonald4, D. E. Crocker5, D. P. Costa6

1Ocean Sciences Department, University of California Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, California 95060, USA
2Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alaska, Anchorage, Alaska 99508, USA
3Earth and Planetary Sciences Department, University of California Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, California 95064, USA
4Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, California 92037, USA
5Department of Biology, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California 94928, USA
6Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department, University of California Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, California 95060, USA

ABSTRACT: Although crabeater seals Lobodon carcinophaga are among the most abundant consumers of Antarctic krill Euphausia superba, their diet has rarely been studied throughout most of the species’ range. Using δ13C and δ15N values in vibrissae from 53 seals, we examined the trophic ecology of crabeater seals from the western Antarctic Peninsula (wAP) in 2001, 2002 and 2007. We observed a wide variability in individual seal mean δ13C values, which ranged from −19.8‰ to −24.9‰ , whereas mean δ15N value varied from 5.4‰ to 7.9‰. We identified a positive significant effect of seal mass on δ13C values, as well as a significant seasonal effect (higher δ13C values in austral winter), which likely resulted from changes in the composition of the community of primary producers. δ15N values for crabeater seals, on the other hand, were affected by year, with individuals in 2002 having higher δ15N values. The median (with range) contribution of Antarctic krill to the diet of crabeater seals, as estimated using the Bayesian mixing model MixSIR, was 87.9% (81.2 to 94.8%). During 2002, krill biomass in the wAP was at one of its lowest levels during the last 2 decades, coinciding with a slight reduction in the importance of krill for the diet of the seals that year, which reached 84.5% (75.1 to 92.4%). Despite the relative plasticity observed in the diet of crabeater seals, it is unknown to what extent, and at what rate, crabeater seals might be able to switch to a more generalized diet, which might impact their fitness, given the ongoing environmental change along the wAP.


KEY WORDS: Lobodon carcinophaga · Euphausia superba · Antarctic fish ·  Stable isotopes · Diet · Specialization


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Cite this article as: Hückstädt LA, Burns JM, Koch PL, McDonald BI, Crocker DE, Costa DP (2012) Diet of a specialist in a changing environment: the crabeater seal along the western Antarctic Peninsula. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 455:287-301. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps09601

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