Behavioral signature of intraspecific competition and density dependence in colony-breeding marine predators



In populations of colony-breeding marine animals, foraging around colonies can lead to intraspecific competition. This competition affects individual foraging behavior and can cause density-dependent population growth. Where behavioral data are available, it may be possible to infer the mechanism of intraspecific competition. If these mechanics are understood, they can be used to predict the population-level functional response resulting from the competition. Using satellite relocation and dive data, we studied the use of space and foraging behavior of juvenile and adult gray seals (Halichoerus grypus) from a large (over 200,000) and growing population breeding at Sable Island, Nova Scotia (44.0 oN 60.0 oW). These data were first analyzed using a behaviorally switching state-space model to infer foraging areas followed by randomization analysis of foraging region overlap of competing age classes. Patterns of habitat use and behavioral time budgets indicate that young-of-year juveniles (YOY) were likely displaced from foraging areas near (<10 km) the breeding colony by adult females. This displacement was most pronounced in the summer. Additionally, our data suggest that YOY are less capable divers than adults and this limits the habitat available to them. However, other segregating mechanisms cannot be ruled out, and we discuss several alternate hypotheses. Mark–resight data indicate juveniles born between 1998 and 2002 have much reduced survivorship compared with cohorts born in the late 1980s, while adult survivorship has remained steady. Combined with behavioral observations, our data suggest YOY are losing an intraspecific competition between adults and juveniles, resulting in the currently observed decelerating logistic population growth. Competition theory predicts that intraspecific competition resulting in a clear losing competitor should cause compensatory population regulation. This functional response produces a smooth logistic growth curve as carrying capacity is approached, and is consistent with census data collected from this population over the past 50 years. The competitive mechanism causing compensatory regulation likely stems from the capital-breeding life-history strategy employed by gray seals. This strategy decouples reproductive success from resources available around breeding colonies and prevents females from competing with each other while young are dependent.