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Keywords:

  • California Current;
  • dive behavior;
  • environmental variation;
  • habitat utilization;
  • interannual variability;
  • satellite tracking

Abstract

To be successful, marine predators must alter their foraging behavior in response to changes in their environment. To understand the impact and severity of environmental change on a population it is necessary to first describe typical foraging patterns and identify the underlying variability that exists in foraging behavior. Therefore, we characterized the at-sea behavior of adult female California sea lions (n = 32) over three years (2003, 2004, and 2005) using satellite transmitters and time-depth recorders and examined how foraging behavior varied among years. In all years, sea lions traveled on average 84.7 ± 11.1 km from the rookery during foraging trips that were 3.2 ± 0.3 d. Sea lions spent 42.7% ± 1.9% of their time at sea diving and displayed short (2.2 ± 0.2 min), shallow dives (58.5 ± 8.5 m). Among individuals, there was significant variation in both dive behavior and movement patterns, which was found in all years. Among years, differences were found in trip durations, distances traveled, and some dive variables (e.g., dive duration and bottom time) as sea lions faced moderate variability in their foraging habitat (increased sea-surface temperatures, decreased upwelling, and potential decreased prey abundance). The flexibility we found in the foraging behavior of California sea lions may be a mechanism to cope with environmental variability among years and could be linked to the continuing growth of sea lion populations.