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USING CARBON AND NITROGEN ISOTOPE VALUES TO INVESTIGATE MATERNAL STRATEGIES IN NORTHEAST PACIFIC OTARIIDS

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Abstract

We examine the utility of stable carbon and nitrogen isotope variations to characterize the length of the nursing/lactation period and age at weaning for two northern Pacific otariid species, the northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus) and California sea lion (Zalophus californianus). We used two sampling strategies to measure ontogenetic trends in isotope value, and compared our results to observational data on the reproductive strategies used by these otariids. For Zalophus, we found evidence for 15N enrichment and 13C-depletion in bone collagen representing the first and second year of growth, which is consistent with the ∼12–14-mo weaning age in this population after a suitable turnover rate for bone collagen is considered. Analysis of individual tooth annuli from a different suite of Zalophus specimens suggests that half of the individuals were weaned at ∼12 mo of age, and half were dependent on milk for a portion of their second year. For Callorhinus, bone collagen for age classes that contain pre-weaned individuals were 15N-enriched, but values were significantly lower in specimens between 6 and 20 mo of age. These 15N-enriched values, presumably acquired during nursing between 0 and 4 mo of age in Callorhinus, were not present in specimens older than 12 mo of age. Thus complete bone collagen turnover in young-of-the-year occurs in 8–10 mo. 15N enrichment is evident in the first annulus of female Callorhinus individuals, but is not detectable in males. Analyses of Callorhinus tooth annuli show no ontogenetic trends in δ13C values. Our study indicates that nitrogen, and in some cases carbon, isotopes can be used to assess reproductive strategies in marine mammals. When coupled with accurate age estimates based on bone growth regressions, this isotopic technique can be applied to historical or fossil otariids to gain insight into the flexibility of maternal strategies within and across species.

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