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Keywords:

  • pinnipedia;
  • northern elephant seal;
  • Mirounga angustirostris;
  • time-depth recorder;
  • diving patterns;
  • foraging ecology

Abstract

We used small microprocessor-based, time-depth recorders to document the diving patterns of six adult male northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) from San Miguel Island, California. The recorders stored measurements of hydrostatic pressure every 30 or 60 set while the seals were at sea for 107 to 145 d in spring and early summer; collectively, over 36,000 dives were recorded. Seals dove continually while at sea, most often to depths of 350–450 m although two seals had secondary modes at about 700–800 m; maximum depths for two seals of 1,333 m and 1,529 m are the deepest yet measured for air-breathing vertebrates. Seals were submerged about 86% of the time they were at sea, rarely spending more than 5 min at the surface between dives; 99% of all post-dive surface intervals were shorter than 10 min. Dives averaged 21–24 min, the longest was 77 min. The uninterrupted patterns of long dives punctuated by brief surface periods suggest that most if not all dives were well within these seals’aerobic limits. Dives of bulls were, on average, about 18% longer than those published earlier for cows, evidently because of the substantially greater body mass of bulls and allometric scaling of dive endurance. Dive depths and dive durations varied seasonally; depths were greatest in spring, durations greatest in early summer. During each season dives were deepest during the day and shallowest at night except for the sixth seal whose consistently shallow dives (50–150 m) in spring were independent of time of day. Prey remains recovered by lavage from seals’stomachs were primarily of vertically migrating, epi- and meso-pelagic squid. The die1 patterns in dive depths suggest that five seals dove to and foraged in the offshore mesopelagic zone, pursuing those vertically migrating prey. The sixth seal behaved similarly in early spring and early summer but may have foraged in nearshore epibenthic habitats in spring.