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J Exp Biol. 1998 Aug;201(Pt 16):2349-58.

Effects of buoyancy on the diving behavior of northern elephant seals.

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Department of Biology, University of California, Santa Cruz, CA 95064, USA.


Marine mammals experience radical seasonal changes in body composition, which would be expected to affect their buoyancy in the water. The aim of this study was to examine the relationship between such changes in buoyancy and diving behavior in northern elephant seals Mirounga angustirostris. This was achieved by modifying the buoyancy of 13 juvenile elephant seals translocated from Año Nuevo State Reserve, CA, USA, and released at various sites in Monterey Bay, CA, USA. The buoyancy of each seal was calculated and was increased or decreased using syntactic foam or lead weights, and their diving behavior was recorded as they returned to Año Nuevo. The seals were divided into three groups: increased buoyancy (B+), reduced buoyancy (B-) and control seals (Bc). Mean descent rates were 0.77+/-0.3 ms-1 for the B+ seals, 0.82+/-0.2 ms-1 for the control seals and 0.87+/-0.3 ms-1 for the B- seals, and were significantly different. Mean ascent rates for the three treatments were 0.82+/-0.3 ms-1 for the B+ seals, 0.86+/-0.3 ms-1 for the control seals and 0.82+/-0.3 ms-1 for the B- seals. All the B+ seals ascended faster than they descended, while four of the five B- seals descended faster than they ascended. There was a significant negative correlation between buoyancy and descent rate, with less buoyant seals descending faster than more buoyant seals. There was, however, no correlation between ascent rate and buoyancy. This suggests that seals may use negative buoyancy to drift passively during descent, but that all seals may swim continuously during ascent. There was a significant correlation between buoyancy and the drift descent rate of C-type drift dives, including upwards drift in the most buoyant seal. Buoyancy was not correlated with diving depth, trip duration, dive duration or surface-interval duration. This study demonstrates that buoyancy plays a significant role in shaping diving behavior in northern elephant seals and that elephant seals may adjust their behavior to suit their buoyancy, rather than adjusting their buoyancy to suit a dive. This study also validated the truncated cones method of calculating body composition in this species by comparing it with body composition determined using tritium dilution.

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