How do overwinter changes in body condition and hormone profiles influence Weddell seal reproductive success?

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Reproductive success can be influenced by maternal physiological condition at the time of embryo implantation and by foraging success during gestation. Polar marine mammals experience drastic fluctuations in body composition (lipid stores) as a result of life-history events and large-scale changes in seasonal productivity and environmental conditions. These species provide the opportunity to explore physiological parameters important to reproductive success. There are conflicting physiological demands on Weddell seal (Leptonychotes weddellii) females during the moult period, when animals are at their leanest but still must generate an energetically costly new pelage and begin active gestation. To investigate the impact of post-moult condition and hormonal mediators on the reproductive success of the southernmost breeding mammal, body composition was determined for post-moult (fall; 53 non-reproductive) and pre-breeding (spring; 31 non-reproductive, 17 reproductive) adult female Weddell seals. Animals were significantly larger and had greater lipid stores in spring, after the winter foraging period. There were no differences in the proportion of mass or condition gained overwinter between females that gave birth (n = 12) and those that did not (n = 8) the following year. Changes in body condition were correlated with endocrine factors that influence energy allocation, such as cortisol, growth hormone (GH), insulin-like growth factor (IGF)-1 and thyroid hormones (T3 and T4). Of these, GH and T4 were significantly higher during the post-moult period, likely to promote protein sparing and hair regeneration. In addition, females that had higher T4 concentrations in fall were significantly more likely to have a pup the following year, possibly due to the role of thyroid hormones in embryo attachment. This suggests that hormones influencing fuel use during the moult may also impact subsequent reproductive success. Unlike some other large pinnipeds, Weddell seals are not capital breeders. This work indicates that gestating Weddell seals do not gain as much mass or energy overwinter in preparation for lactation the following year as lower-latitude phocid species, which might explain why female Weddell seals rely on foraging to meet energetic demands during lactation.

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Functional Ecology





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