Environmental correlates of temporary emigration for female Weddell seals and consequences for recruitment


  • Corresponding Editor: J. P. Y. Arnould.


In colonial-breeding species, prebreeders often emigrate temporarily from natal reproductive colonies then subsequently return for one or more years before producing young. Variation in attendance–nonattendance patterns can have implications for subsequent recruitment. We used open robust-design multistate models and 28 years of encounter data for prebreeding female Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii [Lesson]) to evaluate hypotheses about (1) the relationships of temporary emigration (TE) probabilities to environmental and population size covariates and (2) motivations for attendance and consequences of nonattendance for subsequent probability of recruitment to the breeding population. TE probabilities were density dependent (βˆBPOP = 0.66, inline image = 0.17; estimated effects [β] and standard errors of population size in the previous year) and increased when the fast-ice edge was distant from the breeding colonies (βˆDIST = 0.75, inline image = 0.04; estimated effects and standard errors of distance to the sea-ice edge in the current year on TE probability in the current year) and were strongly age and state dependent. These results suggest that trade-offs between potential benefits and costs of colony attendance vary annually and might influence motivation to attend colonies. Recruitment probabilities were greatest for seals that consistently attended colonies in two or more years (e.g., inline image = 0.56, SD = 0.17) and lowest for seals that never or inconsistently attended prior to recruitment (e.g., inline image = 0.32, SD = 0.15), where inline image denotes the mean recruitment probability (over all years) for 10-year-old seals for the specified prebreeder state. In colonial-breeding seabirds, repeated colony attendance increases subsequent probability of recruitment to the adult breeding population; our results suggest similar implications for a marine mammal and are consistent with the hypothesis that prebreeders were motivated to attend reproductive colonies to gain reproductive skills or perhaps to optimally synchronize estrus through close association with mature breeding females.