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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 612:193-208 (2019)  -  DOI:

Physical and ecological factors explain the distribution of Ross Sea Weddell seals during the breeding season

Michelle A. LaRue1,*, Leo Salas2, Nadav Nur2, David G. Ainley3, Sharon Stammerjohn4, Luke Barrington5, Kostas Stamatiou6, Jean Pennycook3, Melissa Dozier6, Jon Saints6, Hitomi Nakamura7

1Department of Earth Sciences, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA
2Point Blue Conservation Sciences, Petaluma, CA 94954, USA
3H. T. Harvey and Associates Ecological Consultants, Los Gatos, California 95032, USA
4Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado-Boulder, Boulder, CO 80303, USA
5Google, Mountain View, CA 94043, USA
6DigitalGlobe, Inc., Westminster, CO 80234, USA
7Polar Geospatial Center, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108, USA
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Weddell seal Leptonychotes weddellii populations can potentially serve as indicators of change in Southern Ocean food web structure, but tracking populations at regional to continental scales has so far been impossible. Here, we combined citizen science with remote sensing to learn about environmental and biological factors that explain fine-scale distribution of Weddell seal haul-outs in the Ross Sea, Antarctica. We employed the crowd-sourcing platform Tomnod (DigitalGlobe) to host high-resolution (~0.5-0.6 m) satellite imagery of the Antarctic fast ice during November in 2010 and 2011 and asked volunteers to identify seals on images. We created a 5 km × 5 km grid of seal presence per year, and modeled habitat suitability for seals using a generalized linear model. The top Ross Sea-wide model that best explained seal presence included proximity to fast-ice cracks, deep water, and emperor penguin Aptenodytes forsteri colonies. This model also revealed that seal presence decreased with proximity to Adélie penguin Pygoscelis adeliae colonies and size of the nearest emperor penguin colony, suggesting the potential for trophic competitive exclusion by large penguin colonies. With respect to 3 sub-regions within the Ross Sea (North and South Victoria Land in the western Ross Sea, and Marie Byrd Land in the east), we found that 3 habitat variables differed in their effects among sub-regions: proximity to emperor penguin colonies, proximity to deep water, and relative ice width. Our results represent a step toward effectively monitoring Weddell seal population trends and disentangling biological and environmental factors influencing locations of Weddell seal haul-outs around Antarctica.

KEY WORDS: Leptonychotes weddellii · Antarctica · Citizen science · Generalized linear model · High-resolution satellite imagery · Trophic interaction · Tomnod

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Cite this article as: LaRue MA, Salas L, Nur N, Ainley DG and others (2019) Physical and ecological factors explain the distribution of Ross Sea Weddell seals during the breeding season. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 612:193-208.

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