MEPS 496:99-108 (2014)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps10547

Theme Section: Tracking fitness in marine vertebrates

Using short-term measures of behaviour to estimate long-term fitness of southern elephant seals

L. F. New1,2,3,*, J. S. Clark4, D. P. Costa5, E. Fleishman6, M. A. Hindell7, T. Klanjšček8, D. Lusseau9, S. Kraus10, C. R. McMahon7,11, P. W. Robinson5, R. S. Schick3,4, L. K. Schwarz5, S. E. Simmons1, L. Thomas2,3, P. Tyack2, J. Harwood2,3

1Marine Mammal Commission, Bethesda, Maryland 20814, USA
2Scottish Oceans Institute, University of St Andrews, St Andrews KY16 8LB, UK
3Centre for Research into Ecological and Environmental Modelling, University of St Andrews, St Andrews KY16 9LZ, UK
4Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 27708, USA
5Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Santa Cruz, California 95060, USA
6John Muir Institute of the Environment, University of California, Davis, California 95616, USA
7Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Hobart, TAS 7001, Australia
8Ruòer Boškovič Institute, 10000 Zagreb, Croatia
9Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences and Marine Alliance Science and Technology for Scotland, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen AB24 2TZ, UK
10New England Aquarium, Boston, Massachusetts 02110, USA
11Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, Darwin, NT 0909, Australia
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Environmental changes (a type of disturbance) are altering the habitat of southern elephant seals Mirounga leonina, an apex marine predator in the Southern Ocean. As a result, individuals may shift their behaviour, spending more time in transit and less time foraging. The effects of these sublethal changes in behaviour can accumulate, indirectly impacting lifetime fitness through changes in individual survival and reproduction. If a sufficient proportion of the population is affected, the probability of population persistence will be altered. We used data from long-term telemetry studies of female elephant seals at Macquarie Island, Australia, to model the effect of behaviour on the seals’ health (i.e. all internal factors that affect homeostasis). Through simulation, we investigated the effect of increasing periods of behavioural shifts, quantifying how the exclusion of maternal southern elephant seals from foraging habitat may affect their health, offspring survival, individual fitness and population growth rate. A long period of altered behaviour (>50% of an average foraging trip at sea) in 1 yr resulted in a small (0.4%) decline in population size the following year. However, a persistent disruption (e.g. 30 yr), caused for example by the long-term effects of climate change, could result in a 0.3% decline in individual fitness and a 10% decline in population size. Our approach to estimating the long-term population effects of short-term changes in individual behaviour can be generalised to include physiological effects and other causes of behavioural and physiological disruption, such as anthropogenic disturbance, for any species.


KEY WORDS: Kalman filter · Mirounga leonina · Population consequences of disturbance · State-space model · Telemetry data


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Cite this article as: New LF, Clark JS, Costa DP, Fleishman E and others (2014) Using short-term measures of behaviour to estimate long-term fitness of southern elephant seals. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 496:99-108. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps10547

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