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Keywords:

  • steller sea lion;
  • Eumetopias jubatus;
  • nutritional stress;
  • diet;
  • body mass;
  • body composition;
  • dietary intake

Abstract

A leading theory for the cause of the decline of Steller sea lions is nutritional stress, which led to chronic high juvenile mortality and possibly episodic adult mortality. Nutritional stress may have resulted from either poor quality or low abundance of prey. The objective of this study was to determine whether we could predict shifts in body condition (i.e., body mass or body fat content) over different seasons associated with a change in diet (i.e., toward lower quality prey). Captive Steller sea lions (n= 3) were fed three different diet regimes, where Diet 1 approximated the diet in the Kodiak area in the 1970s prior to the documented decline in that area, Diet 2 approximated the species composition in the Kodiak area after the decline had begun, and Diet 3 approximated the diet in southeast Alaska where the Steller sea lion population has been increasing for over 25 yr. All the animals used in this study were still growing and gained mass regardless of diet. Body fat (%) varied between 13% and 28%, but was not consistently high or low for any diet regime or season. Mean intake (in kg) of Diet 2 was significantly greater for all sea lions during all seasons. All animals did, however, tend to gain less body mass on Diets 2 and 3, as well as during the breeding and postbreeding seasons. They also tended to gain more mass during the winter and on Diet 1, though these differences were not statistically significant. Thus, changing seasonal physiology of Steller sea lions appears to have more impact on body condition than quality of prey, provided sufficient quantity of prey is available. Steller sea lions are opportunistic predators and are evidently able to thrive on a variety of prey. Our results indicate that Steller sea lions are capable of compensating for prey of low quality.