Recruitment probabilities and reproductive costs for Weddell seals in Erebus bay, Antarctica

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


The study of life history traits such as age at first reproduction and the evaluation of recruitment probabilities and reproductive costs allow insight regarding the diverse factors and mechanisms shaping reproductive strategies. We investigated these mechanisms using a 26-year mark-resight dataset for Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii) in Erebus Bay, Antarctica. Mean age at first reproduction was 7.62 years of age (SD=1.71), but varied from four to 14 suggesting the presence of important heterogeneity in quality among females. Survival rate was maximized for offspring of age-14 mothers (=0.70 [=0.08]), whereas recruitment probability was highest for pups born to youngest-breeding mothers. For example, probability of recruitment at age 7 was an average of 43% lower for seals born to age-14 mothers than for seals born to age-6 mothers. These results suggest the influence of countervailing selection (where favored genotypes for reproductive success are generally those that are selected against as juveniles). Sea-ice extent affected annual recruitment rates, likely due to cascading effects of oceanographic conditions on marine primary productivity and fluctuations in food availability for female Weddell seals. Results from the reproductive cost analysis strongly supported the presence of reproductive costs to survival (£p..SE£p. was 0.91 for breeders versus 0.94 for nonbreeders). Costs to fecundity were present for first-time breeders (mean probability of breeding the next year was 0.20 lower for first-time breeders than for experienced breeders). Females that delayed breeding until later in life experienced highest reproductive costs to fecundity, possibly due to their inferiority relative to other individuals in the population, again suggesting the influence of heterogeneity in individual quality. From these analyses we have gained insight into 1) the extent of within-population variation in important life-history characteristics for a long-lived species, and 2) the sources of this variation and potential linkages with environmental variables. Keys to future research will be 1) explaining variation in individual quality with random effects models or by using mass as an indicator variable, and 2) more detailed exploration of appropriate climate and sea-ice indices to elucidate linkages between this top trophic level predator and variation in the Antarctic marine environment.




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