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Male Southern Elephant Seals Are Picky Eaters

Multiple southern elephant seals
Multiple Southern Elephant Seals By Antoine Lamielle, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=128628239

Male Southern elephant seals, the colossal predators of the Antarctic, exhibit surprisingly selective eating habits. Despite a vast array of potential prey in their icy habitat, these marine mammals display distinct culinary preferences, focusing almost exclusively on their favorite foods.

Southern Elephant Seal
Southern Elephant Seal Vocalizing. By Antoine Lamielle, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=128628190

Specialized Diet

Recent research led by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia, has shed light on the dietary habits of male Southern elephant seals. Contrary to the more generalized diet of their female counterparts, males are extremely picky eaters. Every seal prefers specific foods, ranging from fish and squid species to crustaceans and octopuses.

Elephant Seals
Elephant Seal. By Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, CA 02feb2008 – photo by Michael “Mike” L. Baird http://bairdphotos.com Canon 1D Mark III w/ 600mm f/4 IS lens on tripod

Methodology: Whisker Analysis

The study utilized a novel approach to understand the seals’ diet by analyzing their whiskers. Whiskers contain stable isotopes that provide a chemical record of the seals’ past meals. This method allowed researchers to construct a detailed picture of the males’ dietary habits over time.

Two elephant seals fighting.
Two elephant seals fighting. By Laëtitia Kernaléguen (Deakin University) – BMC Ecology image competition: the winning images. BMC Ecology 2013, 13:6 doi:10.1186/1472-6785-13-6, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37320264

Findings: Extreme Specialists

The research revealed that nearly all the sampled seals were specialists, with a majority being extreme specialists. They consistently consumed the same types of food with little variation, focusing on less than 20% of the available food types. Only one seal in the study displayed a more generalized diet.

Elephant Seal
By “Mike” Michael L. Baird, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3578991

Body Size and Dietary Specialization

An interesting correlation emerged between the seals’ body size and their dietary specialization. Larger seals tended to consume prey higher up the food chain, opting for energy-dense foods like large squid, especially before the breeding season. However, specialization was not solely determined by size, as smaller seals also exhibited extreme food preferences from early adulthood.

Southern elephant seal
By Antoine Lamielle, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=128628148

Implications for Breeding Success

The study’s findings highlight the potential impact of dietary specialization on breeding success. Specializing in specific food types, even subpar options, could improve foraging success rates among male seals and enable them to gain the size needed to compete for breeding rights.

Southern Elephant Seal
By Antoine Lamielle, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=128628148

Climate Change Threat

Despite the recovery of Southern elephant seal populations, climate change poses a threat. Changes in the Southern Ocean could affect the availability of krill and other prey, impacting the seals’ ability to feed on their favorite foods. Researchers emphasize the need for more studies to understand the impact of climate change on these marine mammals’ dietary habits and breeding success.

Multiple southern elephant seals
Multiple Southern Elephant Seals By Antoine Lamielle, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=128628239

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