Finescale ecological niche modeling provides evidence that lactating gray seals (Halichoerus grypus) prefer access to fresh water in order to drink



Many phocids are capital breeders, relying on stored reserves to sustain energetic requirements while on land. Their large body size, high energy expenditure during lactation, and the insulative effects of the blubber layer can lead to thermal stress from overheating, especially in warm and temperate climates. Thermal stress can influence fine-scale site choice on breeding colonies, and behavioral thermoregulation has been proposed as an explanation for the clear preferences shown by breeding female gray seals for proximity to pools of water. However, anecdotal observations suggest that pools of water may also be preferred for drinking, though water intake is difficult to verify without real-time physiological monitoring. Here, an alternative approach demonstrates that gray seals also require access to water for drinking. Using Ecological Niche Factor Analysis to examine fine-scale physical determinants of pupping site choice at North Rona, Scotland, we found that lactating mothers showed preference for lower salinity pools. This is most pronounced early in the season, when ambient temperatures and presumably thermal stress are greatest. Given that the cooling effect of fresh and salt water should be equivalent, the most parsimonious explanation for this preference for fresh water pools is that lactating females use these pools for drinking.