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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 450:229-241 (2012)  -  DOI:

Ontogenetic changes in feeding habits of northern elephant seals revealed by δ15N and δ13C analysis of growth layers in teeth

Marjorie Riofrío-Lazo1,*, David Aurioles-Gamboa1, Burney J. Le Boeuf2

1Laboratorio de Ecología de Pinnípedos ‘Burney J. Le Boeuf’, Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias Marinas, Instituto Politécnico Nacional Ave. Instituto Politécnico Nacional s/n, Col. Playa Palo de Santa Rita. C.P. 23096 La Paz, Baja California Sur, México
2University Affiliated Research Center, 29 Clark Kerr Hall, University of California, Santa Cruz, California 95064, USA

ABSTRACT: Stable isotope analysis is useful for examining the feeding strategies of mammals. Isotopes in the annual deposition growth layers of dentine in teeth permit assessment of ontogenetic dietary shifts in individuals, because this metabolically inert tissue is not resorbed after deposition. Profiles of stable isotope ratios of nitrogen (δ15N) and carbon (δ13C) from the teeth of northern elephant seals Mirounga angustirostris, aged between 1 and 11 yr, were described from stranded individuals in San Benito and Magdalena Islands, Mexico, between 2000 and 2009. δ13C and δ15N values differed with age in each sex indicating shifts in feeding habits throughout life, as well as in their physiological condition. Although steady δ13C values within each individual suggest fidelity to feeding grounds, differences in δ13C values between males and females were likely a reflection of sexual segregation on the feeding areas, which begins during the juvenile stage. Mean δ15N values of males (18.3‰) and females (18.2‰) would suggest that both groups feed at a similar trophic level; however a combination of differences in benthic versus pelagic and longitudinal foraging habitats would be masking real sex differences in trophic level, estimated for the species at 4.6. δ15N and δ13C values varied markedly between individuals of the same sex, suggesting the potential existence of diverse feeding strategies leading to a resource partitioning in this species. The alleged fetal growth layer has a δ15N value 1.8‰ higher than the average of the adult female stage, suggesting that the fetal layer is more likely the product of the intensive nursing during the first month of life.

KEY WORDS: Mirounga angustirostris · Stable isotope · Dentine growth layer · Ontogenetic dietary shifts · Feeding strategy · Isotope fractionation

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Cite this article as: Riofrío-Lazo M, Aurioles-Gamboa D, Le Boeuf BJ (2012) Ontogenetic changes in feeding habits of northern elephant seals revealed by δ15N and δ13C analysis of growth layers in teeth. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 450:229-241.

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