Top down and bottom up influences on demographic rates of Antarctic fur seals Arctocephalus gazella

Open Access Peer Reviewed Publication 2013

The Journal of Animal Ecology

1. Two major drivers in population dynamics are bottom-up processes, such as environmental factors that affect foraging success, and the top-down impacts of predation. 2. Many populations of marine mammal and seabird species appear to be declining in response to reductions in prey associated with the bottom-up effects of climate change. However, predation, which usually occurs at sea and is difficult to observe, may also play a key role. 3. We analysed drivers of population dynamics of Antarctic fur seals Arctocephalus gazella at Cape Shirreff from 1997 to 2009, including a predator that targets pre-weaned pups and bottom-up environmental effects in an ecosystem particularly sensitive to small changes in temperature. 4. We use Bayesian mark-recapture analysis to demonstrate that although large-scale environmental variability affects annual adult survival and reproduction, first year survival appears to be driving the current decline in this population (as defined by a decline in the annual number of pups born). Although the number of pups increased during the first third of the study, first year survival and recruitment of those pups in later years was very low. Such low survival may be driven by leopard seal Hydrurga leptonyx predation, particularly prior to weaning. 5. Our results suggest that without leopard seal predation, this population would most likely increase in size, despite the observed bottom-up effects of climate changes on adult vital rates. More broadly, our results show how age-targeted predation could be a major factor in population decline of K-selected colonial breeders.

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