African Journal of Marine Science

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Natal site fidelity by breeding female southern elephant seals in relation to their history of participation in the winter haulout

GJG Hofmeyr, SP Kirkman, PA Pistorius, MN Bester


Of the four types of terrestrial haulout periods undertaken by southern elephant seals Mirounga leonina, only the purpose of the winter haulout is unknown. Returning to a haulout site from distant pelagic foraging grounds bears significant costs in terms of increased energy expenditure, reduced foraging time and increased exposure to predation; therefore, each haulout must serve a purpose. We examined the hypothesis that the winter haulout serves to maintain familiarity with the natal site, thereby increasing site fidelity. To this end, we analysed a long-term mark-recapture dataset for female southern elephant seals at Marion Island, Southern Ocean. Results indicate that, whereas greater natal site fidelity as primiparous females was associated with recorded presence ashore at the study site during the winter haulout as immatures, this was not the case for multiparous females. Furthermore, recorded presence ashore during both the moult haulouts as immatures, and all haulouts as immatures, irrespective of haulout type, was also associated with increased site fidelity. This suggests that any haulout at the natal island as an immature seal, whether for the moult or winter haulout, assists in maintaining site fidelity. Therefore, while the winter haulout facilitates greater natal site fidelity, whether this is the sole reason for this terrestrial period remains uncertain.

Keywords: animal movement, dispersal, Mirounga leonina, Subantarctic

African Journal of Marine Science 2012, 34(3): 373–382
AJOL African Journals Online