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Dugong habitat use in relation to seagrass nutrients, tides, and diel cycles

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Abstract

The dugong is the only herbivorous mammal that is strictly marine and a seagrass community specialist. The pasture available to the dugong varies with the tides because seagrass occurs in both intertidal and subtidal areas. We GPS-tracked seven dugongs within a 24 km2, intensively used seagrass habitat in subtropical Australia in winter. We modeled resource selection within the habitat by comparing the dugongs’ use of space with the distribution of seagrass in an area defined using the combined space-use of the tracked animals. Selection by dugongs for seagrass quantity (biomass) and quality (nutrients) was analyzed within six time/tide combinations to examine the influences of tidal periodicity and the diel cycle on resource selection. Dugong habitat use was consistently centered over seagrass patches with high nitrogen concentrations, except during the day at low tides when the animals had fewer habitat choices and their space use was centered over high seagrass biomass. The association of dugongs with seagrass high in starch was positive during both day and night high tides when the animals could access the intertidal areas where seagrass biomass was generally low. Associations between dugongs and seagrass species were less definite, reflecting the potential for dugongs to exploit several species. Our model of dugong resource selection suggests that nitrogen is the primary limiting nutrient for dugong populations and also confirms the preference of dugongs for high-energy foods.

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