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Stable isotope values in pup vibrissae reveal geographic variation in diets of gestating Steller sea lions Eumetopias jubatus

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Multiple factors, including limitation in food resources, have been proposed as possible causes for the lack of recovery of the endangered western segment of the Steller sea lion population in the United States. Because maternal body condition has important consequences on fetal development and neonatal survival, the diets of pregnant females may be particularly important in regulating population sizes. We used the stable carbon and nitrogen isotope values of vibrissae from Steller sea lion pups as an indirect indicator of maternal diets during gestation. Combining these data with isotope data from potential prey species in a Bayesian mixing model, we generated proportional estimates of dietary consumption for key prey. Our analysis indicated that females in the most westerly metapopulations relied heavily on Atka mackerel and squid, whereas females inhabiting the Gulf of Alaska region had a fairly mixed diet, and the metapopulation of Southeast Alaska showed a strong reliance on forage fish. These results are similar to previous data from scat collections; however, they indicate a possible under-representation of softbodied prey (squid) or prey with fragile skeletons (forage fish) from analyses of data from scats. This study supports the utility of stable isotope modeling in predicting diet composition in gestating adult female Steller sea lions during winter, using pup vibrissae.

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