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J Exp Biol. 2001 Nov;204(Pt 22):3993-4004.

Diving development in nursing harbour seal pups.

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  • 1Norwegian Polar Institute, Polar Environmental Center, N-9296 Tromsø, Norway.


This study investigated physiological and behavioural aspects of diving development in pups of the harbour seal Phoca vitulina. Behavioural data (4280 h, 6027 dives) from time/depth recorders (N=13) deployed on pups aged 0-19 days are presented concomitantly with physiological measurements (N=8, sampled both early and late in the nursing period) of blood oxygen stores and body composition. Pups grew from 12.6+/-1.8 kg (mean age 2 days, total body fat 16+/-4 %) to 22.2+/-2.5 kg (mean age 16 days, total body fat 35+/-5 %; means +/- S.D.) over the duration of the experiment. Pups less than 5 days of age had an elevated haematocrit and reduced plasma volume compared with older pups. Although plasma volume and blood volume increased, mass-specific blood oxygen stores (total haemoglobin) fell during the study period. Simultaneously, the following behavioural indicators of diving ability increased: the proportion of time spent in the water, dive depth, dive duration, bottom time and maximum daily swimming velocity. In addition, the proportion of dives that were identified by cluster analyses as being U-shaped increased significantly with age. On the basis of the measured blood oxygen stores, less than 1 % of the recorded dives exceeded the calculated aerobic dive limit. Thus, development in blood oxygen stores or rates of oxygen consumption did not seem to restrain the rate of neonatal dive development in harbour seals. It appears that behavioural modifications (experience and learning) may be the primary rate-limiting factors for ontogeny of diving skills in neonates of this species.

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