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Seasonal and Developmental Patterns of Energy Intake and Growth in Alaskan Ice Seals
Abstract: Quantifying the energy needs of individual animals and understanding the relationship between food intake and physical growth are necessary to determine species-level food requirements and to model potential responses to changing environmental conditions. To provide fine-scale information about developmental and seasonal patterns in the energetic requirements of Arctic phocid seals, we documented longitudinal changes in food intake, body mass, and standard length in four spotted seals (Phoca largha), three ringed seals (Pusa hispida), and two bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus). The seals were studied for up to 9 years in subarctic and/or temperate climates while living under human care. Seals were fed using behavioral criteria that allowed their food intake and body mass to vary naturally. Gross energy intake (GEI) increased with age in all species, reaching a plateau as seals matured. GEI was greatest for the largest species (bearded seals) and lowest for the smallest (ringed seals). Mass-specific GEI declined with age and was similar between spotted and ringed seals, with bearded seals consuming about half as much as the smaller species. Overlaid upon long-term developmental changes were predictable seasonal cycles in food intake and body mass which became more pronounced as seals matured. Seasonal cycles in food intake and body mass did not always reflect simple cause-and-effect relationships. For example, seasonal peaks in food intake were regularly associated with simultaneous declines in body mass. The consistency of energy intake patterns, despite seals being maintained in semi-artificial conditions in different local climates, supports the hypothesis that seasonal oscillations are guided by underlying hormonal changes linked to key life history events and mediated by the physical environment. The described physiological patterns serve to highlight times of year when free-ranging Arctic seals may be more sensitive to environmental perturbations.
Key Words: food intake, caloric intake, body mass, growth, development, environmental conditions, nutrition, Phoca largha, Pusa hispida, Erignathus barbatus
Page Numbers: 559-573