The influence of diet on foraging habitat models: a case study using nursing fur seals
Predictable sources of food underpin lifetime reproductive output in long lived animals. The most important foraging areas of top marine predators are therefore likely to be related to environmental features that enhance productivity in predictable spatial and temporal patterns. Even so, although productive areas within the marine environment are distributed patchily in space and time, most studies assess the relationships between feeding activity and proximate, not long term, environmental characteristics. In addition, individuals within a population may exploit different prey types, and these are often associated with different hydrographic features. Until now, models attempting to associate core foraging areas (CFAs) of marine predators with the environmental characteristics of those areas have not considered the diet of individual animals, despite the influence this could have on these relationships. We used bathymetry and multi-year (n=24) mean sea surface temperature and variability as predictors of CFAs of lactating Antarctic fur seals Arctocephalus gazella at Heard Island. The effect of prey types on the predictability of these models was explored by matching diet and foraging trip data of individual seals (n=40 seals, n=1 trip each). Differences in diet between seals were mirrored by their spatial behaviour. Foraging strategies differed both between and within groups of seals consuming different diets. Long-term environmental parameters were useful for predicting the foraging activity of seals that consumed a single prey type with relatively specific habitat preferences, but not for those that consumed single or multiple prey types associated with more varied habitats. Ignoring individual variation in predator diet probably contributes to the poor performance of foraging habitat models. These findings highlight the importance of incorporating individual specialization in foraging behaviour into ecological models and management of predator populations.
Authors: Casper, Ruth M., Sumner, Michael D., Hindell, Mark A., Gales, Nicholas J., Staniland, Iain J., Goldsworthy, Simon D.