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Keywords:

  • South American sea lion;
  • Otaria byronia;
  • inverse density dependency;
  • growth;
  • pup mortality;
  • phytohaemaglutinin skin test;
  • stable isotopes

Abstract

Increased terrestrial pup mortality in small colonies due to harassment by subadult males has been proposed as a mechanism to explain the stagnation of South American sea lion populations after sealing ended. To test this hypothesis, pup survival rate was assessed in five northern Patagonia colonies with different sizes. Female diet quality as well as pup growth rate and immune status from the largest and smallest of these colonies were also assessed. Results indicated that the pup survival rate increased with colony size and pup-to-subadult male ratio. Furthermore, pups grew faster in the smallest colony, although female diet composition and pup immune status did not differ between the two colonies. Inverse relationship between pup growth rate and survival rate indicated that mortality was independent of food supply. In absence of terrestrial predators, infanticide by subadult males is the only mortality source other than starvation and illness and the relationship between pup survival rate and pup-to-subadult male ratio approached a type II functional response curve. Thus, infanticide stands as the most likely reason for the observed positive relationship between colony size and pup survival rate, supporting the hypothesis that post-sealing population stasis was caused by inverse density dependence.