Title page for ETD etd-10222009-124552

Document Type Doctoral Thesis
Author De Bruyn, Petrus Jacobus Nicholas
Email pjndebruyn@zoology.up.ac.za
URN etd-10222009-124552
Document Title Life history studies of the southern elephant seal population at Marion Island
Degree PhD
Department Zoology and Entomology
Advisor Name Title
Prof M N Bester Supervisor
  • methodology advancement
  • population demography
  • longevity
  • senescence
  • survivorship
  • tagging
  • mark-recapture
  • photogrammetry
  • phocids
  • Southern Ocean
  • Mirounga leonina
  • experimental design
  • ecosystem approach research
Date 2009-09-02
Availability unrestricted

Holistic studies of mammalian life history factors and their consequences on population demography require an intensive, multifaceted field methodology and effort over long temporal scales. A 25-year longitudinal mark-recapture experiment on southern elephant seals, Mirounga leonina, at Subantarctic Marion Island provide such a foundation for demographic analyses and relevant methodology advancement. Two gaps in the methodology related to life history and population demographic research are, the absence of large samples of known mass individuals, and an inability to identify mother-pup relatedness. A novel three-dimensional photogrammetric technique is designed here that allows for mass estimation of large samples of southern elephant seals in the field. An effective temporary marking technique for unweaned pups is implemented that allows for identification of large samples of pups with known mothers prior to the maternal bond being severed at weaning. These known pups can then be marked with more robust tags and relatedness information is preserved long-term. Thus, mass estimates can now be applied as covariates in modelling analyses to address questions of, for example, maternal investment, kinship associated behaviour, and the consequences thereof on survival and reproductive parameters.

The state change in the Marion Island southern elephant seal population from decrease to stabilisation/increase is shown to have resulted from improved survivorship in both juvenile and adult female age classes. Male seals of all ages did not indicate improved survivorship following the period of decline. The inflexion in survivorship is identified as 1994, whence improved survivorship of juvenile seals preceded that of young adult females. This inflexion in survivorship is postulated to have resulted in a population trend inflexion around 1998.

Female southern elephant seals do not show evidence of actuarial senescence, but reproductive senescence is apparent after 12 years of age. A longterm reproductive cost (reduced breeding effort) is associated with early primiparity (age three) as compared with later primiparity (4- 5- or 6-year-old). The mean proportion of 3-year-old breeders has not increased after 1994 as has been hypothesized in previous studies. Contrary to previous assumptions, females do not as a rule breed every year. Annually interrupted breeding efforts are more common than consecutive breeding efforts. No difference in the proportions of interrupted versus uninterrupted breeding efforts was identified between periods of population decline and stabilisation/increase. Longevity as predicted by survival estimates exceeds the observed frequencies. This study provides unique longevity and fertility schedules for the species.

The improved survivorship, reproductive senescence and breeding schedules of female southern elephant seals in this population provide groundwork for reevaluation of previous studies and their conclusions. The addition of relatedness and body condition information will allow for sophisticated multistate modelling of population demography in future studies. However, analytical procedures and techniques employed need to be meticulously designed and thoroughly thought through to avoid mis-interpretation of biological data.

In addition to a multistate single species analytical approach, the importance of an ecosystem approach to species population demographic studies is highlighted through the augmenting of data on relevant potential drivers of population change, such as killer whales, Orcinus orca.

2009, University of Pretoria. All rights reserved. The copyright in this work vests in the University of Pretoria. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission of the University of Pretoria.

Please cite as follows:

De Bruyn, PJN 2009, Life history studies of the southern elephant seal population at Marion Island, PhD theses, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, viewed yymmdd < http://upetd.up.ac.za/thesis/available/etd-10222009-124552 / >

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