Oxygen minimum zone: An important oceanographic habitat for deep-diving northern elephant seals, Mirounga angustirostris

Open Access Peer Reviewed Publication 2017

Ecology and Evolution

Little is known about the foraging behavior of top predators in the deep mesopelagic ocean. Elephant seals dive to the deep biota-poor oxygen minimum zone (OMZ) (>800 m depth) despite high diving costs in terms of energy and time, but how they successfully forage in the OMZ remains largely unknown. Assessment of their feeding rate is the key to understanding their foraging behavior, but this has been challenging. Here, we assessed the feeding rate of 14 female northern elephant seals determined by jaw motion events (JME) and dive cycle time to examine how feeding rates varied with dive depth, particularly in the OMZ. We also obtained video footage from seal-mounted videos to understand their feeding in the OMZ. While the diel vertical migration pattern was apparent for most depths of the JME, some very deep dives, beyond the normal diel depth ranges, occurred episodically during daylight hours. The midmesopelagic zone was the main foraging zone for all seals. Larger seals tended to show smaller numbers of JME and lower feeding rates than smaller seals during migration, suggesting that larger seals tended to feed on larger prey to satisfy their metabolic needs. Larger seals also dived frequently to the deep OMZ, possibly because of a greater diving ability than smaller seals, suggesting their dependency on food in the deeper depth zones. Video observations showed that seals encountered the rarely reported ragfish (Icosteus aenigmaticus) in the depths of the OMZ, which failed to show an escape response from the seals, suggesting that low oxygen concentrations might reduce prey mobility. Less mobile prey in OMZ would enhance the efficiency of foraging in this zone, especially for large seals that can dive deeper and longer. We suggest that the OMZ plays an important role in structuring the mesopelagic ecosystem and for the survival and evolution of elephant seals.

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