Bio-physical characterisation of polynyas as a key foraging habitat for juvenile male southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) in Prydz Bay, East Antarctica

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Abstract

Antarctic coastal polynyas are persistent open water areas in the sea ice zone, and regions of high biological productivity thought to be important foraging habitat for marine predators. This study quantified southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) habitat use within and around the polynyas of the Prydz Bay region (63°E-88°E) in East Antarctica, and examined the bio-physical characteristics structuring polynyas as foraging habitat. Output from a climatological regional ocean model was used to provide context for in situ temperature-salinity vertical profiles collected by tagged elephant seals and to characterise the physical properties structuring polynyas. Biological properties were explored using remotely-sensed surface chlorophyll (Chl-a) and, qualitatively, historical fish assemblage data. Spatially gridded residence time of seals was examined in relation to habitat characteristics using generalized additive mixed models. The results showed clear polynya usage during early autumn and increasingly concentrated usage during early winter. Bathymetry, Chl-a, surface net heat flux (representing polynya location), and bottom temperature were identified as significant bio-physical predictors of the spatio-temporal habitat usage. The findings from this study confirm that the most important marine habitats for juvenile male southern elephant seals within Prydz Bay region are polynyas. A hypothesis exists regarding the seasonal evolution of primary productivity, coupling from surface to subsurface productivity and supporting elevated rates of secondary production in the upper water column during summer- autumn. An advancement to this hypothesis is proposed here, whereby this bio-physical coupling is likely to extend throughout the water column as it becomes fully convected during autumn-winter, to also promote pelagic-benthic linkages important for benthic foraging within polynyas.

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Malpress, V., Bestley, S., Corney, S., Welsford, D., Labrousse, S., Sumner, M., & Hindell, M. (2017). Bio-physical characterisation of polynyas as a key foraging habitat for juvenile male southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) in Prydz Bay, East Antarctica. PLoS ONE, 12(9). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184536

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