Intraspecific variability is increasingly recognized as an important component of foraging behavior that can have implications for both population and community dynamics. We used an individual-level approach to describe the foraging behavior of an abundant, generalist predator that inhabits a dynamic marine ecosystem, focusing specifically on the different foraging strategies used by individuals in the same demographic group. We collected data on movements and diving behavior of adult female California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) across multiple foraging trips to sea. Sea lions (n = 35) used one of three foraging strategies that primarily differed in their oceanic zone and dive depth: a shallow, epipelagic strategy, a mixed epipelagic/benthic strategy, and a deep-diving strategy. Individuals varied in their degree of fidelity to a given strategy, with 66% of sea lions using only one strategy on all or most of their foraging trips across the two-month tracking period. All foraging strategies were present in each of the sampling years, but there were inter-annual differences in the population-level importance of each strategy that may reflect changes in prey availability. Deep-diving sea lions traveled shorter distances and spent a greater proportion of time at the rookery than sea lions using the other two strategies, which may have energetic and reproductive implications. These results highlight the importance of an individual-based approach in describing the foraging behavior of female California sea lions and understanding how they respond to the seasonal and annual changes in prey availability that characterize the California Current System.
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