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Daily and seasonal movements of Cape Cod gray seals vary with predation risk

Jerry H. Moxley*, Gregory Skomal, John Chisholm, Patrick Halpin, David W. Johnston

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: White sharks and gray seals are re-establishing their ecological roles within the Northwestern Atlantic Ocean, presenting an opportunity to understand gray seal movement and at-sea behavior under predation risk. As with other shark-seal hotspots, movements to and from terrestrial haul outs can be risky for gray seals thereby eliciting antipredator strategies. We investigated the movement and coastal behavior of gray seals on Cape Cod (USA) in relation to seasonal and diel changes in white shark activity. Analyzing 412 trips to sea by 8 seals and more than 25,000 acoustic detections from 23 individual white sharks, we observed seasonally-homogenous movement behaviors of seals during months with greater shark presence. During riskier months, seal behavior manifested in near-exclusive nocturnal foraging, reduced offshore ranging, and limited at-sea activity. On these nocturnal trips to sea, seals returning to haul outs tended to avoid daybreak and traversed during a diel minima in shark activity. However, seals tended to depart haul outs at dusk when shark presence was maximal. As conservation efforts succeed in rebuilding depleted populations of coastal predators, studying re-emerging predator-prey interactions can enhance our understanding about the drivers of movement and behavior.