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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 210:203-221 (2001)  -  doi:10.3354/meps210203

Marine mammals and the community structure of the Estuary and Gulf of St Lawrence, Canada: evidence from stable isotope analysis

Véronique Lesage1,2,*, Mike O. Hammill1, Kit M. Kovacs3,4

1Maurice Lamontagne Institute, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, PO Box 1000, Mont-Joli, Quebec G5H 3Z4, Canada
2Department of Biology, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario N2L 3G1, Canada
3Norwegian Polar Institute, 9296 Tromsø, Norway
4Department of Biology, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario N2L 3G1, Canada
*Present address: Maurice Lamontagne Institute. E-mail:

ABSTRACT: The trophic relationships of both the benthic and pelagic communities in the Estuary and Gulf of St Lawrence regions were examined, with a special focus on the trophic position (TP) and relationship(s) among harbour, grey, hooded and harp seals and beluga whales. A multiple stable isotope and multiple tissue approach, used in conjunction with conventional dietary information, suggested that marine mammals occupied the highest trophic positions in the food webs of both communities and that they overlapped with one another to some extent trophically. Harbour seals Phoca vitulina and hooded seals Cystophora cristata occupied the highest TP, grey seals Halichoerus grypus, Gulf harp seals Phoca groenlandica, and male beluga whales Delphinapterus leucas were intermediate, and Estuary harp seals and female beluga whales were at the lowest TP. A general pattern of increasing enrichment of 13C or 15N with age was observed in marine mammals (as well as fishes), although yearlings showed a decreased enrichment compared to both younger and older age classes. Sex also influenced δ15N values. Males were more 15N-enriched than females, with the difference between the sexes increasing with age, and being most pronounced in species that are sexually dimorphic with respect to body size. Geographical location also influenced isotope abundance. Estuary organisms were generally 13C-enriched relative to Gulf animals. δ13C values were on average lower in short-term diet integrators (blood serum) than in longer-term diet integrators (red blood cells) of harbour seals captured in April to June in the Estuary, which suggests that they probably did not move outside the Lower Estuary during the winter. Grey seals captured in the Lower Estuary did, however, show evidence of having been in the Gulf region some weeks or months before capture.

KEY WORDS: Stable isotopes · δ13C · δ15N · Seal · Beluga whale · Food web · trophic position

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