Alaska seal pup diet may hold key to decline of population

Female harbor seal pups whose blubber falls below average levels may be at higher risk of delayed sexual maturation or death, even if they get enough fat in their diets later on, according to a new study sponsored by The American Physiological Society and presented at Experimental Biology 2006.

The study found that harbor seals pups that were heavier when captured from the wild continued to gain weight and grow regardless of whether the researchers placed them on a high fat or low fat diet. But smaller seals, regardless of which diet group they were put in, continued to lag behind in weight gain and even lost blubber depth.

"Our longitudinal study is leading to a better understanding of the role that fat consumption plays in the life of the harbor seal and could tie the declining population of seals and other marine mammals with the change in availability of seal prey, including herring," lead author Lori Polasek said.

*Paper presentation: "Growth and body condition of harbor seals on high and low fat diets," 12:45 p.m.-3 p.m. Monday April 3, Physiological Ecology and Evolutionary Physiology, 492.3/board #C768. On view 7:30 a.m. - 6 p.m. in the Convention Center Exhibit Hall. Research was by Lori Polasek and Shannon Atkinson of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks and Alaska Sealife Center, Seward, and Anne Hoover-Miller of the Alaska Sealife Center.

The research is part of a much larger effort to find out why harbor seals and other marine mammals are disappearing from the chilly waters off the Alaskan coast. The population decline, which has become a focus of research in the past 10-15 years, is potentially due to a variety of factors, Polasek said, including:

  • changes in availability of prey
  • warming ocean waters
  • pollution
  • increased presence of humans who may disturb the animals

Herring, capelin and eulachon are good sources of much-needed fat in the diet of harbor seals, but they have decreased in numbers in some areas where seals live, Polasek explained. "We are examining the importance of fatty fish in the diet of young, growing seals to see if our experimental seals reflect changes observed in wild populations and could explain the rapid population declines seen since the 1970s."

Low fat or high fat diet

The study began in 2004 with four one-month-old newly weaned female harbor seals, the animals most susceptible to changes in prey availability. In 2005, the researchers added four more newly weaned one-month-old females to the study.

For marine mammals, most energy is provided by fat and protein, Polasek said. And fat is the easiest to convert to energy and blubber. Herring is one potential source of fat for harbor seals, she said. After weaning, pups must learn to effectively fish and accumulate sufficient fat stores for the winter, but changes observed in the distribution, composition or abundance of fish may make it harder to ingest and store enough fat. The study aimed to find out what effect the fat content of the harbor seals' diets has on their ability to survive and reproduce.

At the beginning of the study, the pups weighed between 21 and 33 kilograms (9.5 to 15 pounds). The researchers placed four of the seals in the high fat diet group and four in the low fat group. Both groups received an identical base diet, including pollock, squid, and capelin, all of which contain less than 4% fat. The remainder of the diet was herring.

The low fat group received herring that contained less than 6% lipids, while the high fat group received herring that was 16% lipids. (Herring have a higher fat content in winter before laying their eggs, but lose about one-third of their fat after releasing their eggs.)

Except for the fat content of the herring, the nutrient content was the same for both groups, Polasek explained. The researchers monitored the animals in the low fat group to ensure fat intake was not falling below minimal levels, she said. "We don't want to put them in nutritionally stressed situation that would harm them," Polasek said. "We don't want to drop the fat too low, but we want to know how seals respond to a restricted fat diet."

Starting weight most important factor

The results so far have been surprising: growth rates, seasonal fluctuations in body mass, and percent body fat have been generally independent of the seal's diet. Instead, the starting weight has been the critical predictor of whether the seal would add body mass and body fat, Polasek explained.

Seals weighing less than 26 kilos (about 12 pounds) showed little progress in gaining weight and even lost blubber, regardless of which diet they were on. On the other hand, the study's largest seal, which weighed 33kg when she began in 2004, has shown good growth despite being on the low fat diet, Polasek said. A seal that weighed 26kg at the start of the study, on the high-fat diet, has also continued to grow in a similar manner.

These results fit with a recent study by a team from Göteborg University that found wild seal pups smaller than 26 kg when they were weaned were less likely to survive the winter. It seems that mother seals, which produce high fat milk, must impart enough fat to get pups over the 26kg mark, Polasek noted. And once weaned, they must ingest sufficient food to get through the winter when food is less abundant.

Seals rely on blubber both for insulation and as a source of energy. Nutritionally stressed adolescent females may take longer to reach sexual maturation and mature females that are nutritionally stressed may not reproduce, offering clues to why some harbor seal populations are falling, Polasek said.

Next steps

The seals will continue their low fat and high fat diets as the longitudinal research continues. "We're curious to find if it will take longer for the low fat diet animals to reach sexual maturation," Polasek said. Human females who consume an extremely low fat diet reach sexual maturity later than those who consume a high fat diet, she noted.

In addition, the researchers are:

  • Examining fecal matter to see how efficiently the animals in the two groups digest their food. Animals on the low fat diet may be processing their food less efficiently and eliminating needed nutrients.
  • Measuring bone growth to see if one group grows more quickly.
  • Monitoring the concentrations of cortisol, in response to a stressor that dilates the pupils and increases heart beat. Animals in the low fat group may take a longer time to recover.
  • Comparing their data with observations and tests on seals in the wild done by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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Funding: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration supported the research.

Editor's Note: For further information or to schedule an interview with a member of the research team, please contact Christine Guilfoy at the APS newsroom @ 415.905.1024 (March 31-April 5); or 978.290-2400 (cell) or 301.634.7253 (office), cguilfoy@the-aps.org; or Mayer Resnick at 301.332.4402 (cell) or 301.634.7209 (office).

Go to http://www.faseb.org/meetings/eb2006/call/ and click on "Searchable Program Planner and Itinerary Builder to find the searchable online program for EB.

The American Physiological Society was founded in 1887 to foster basic and applied bioscience. The Bethesda, Maryland-based society has more than 10,000 members and publishes 14 peer-reviewed journals containing almost 4,000 articles annually.

APS provides a wide range of research, educational and career support and programming to further the contributions of physiology to understanding the mechanisms of diseased and healthy states. In May 2004, APS received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM).

Experimental Biology is an annual scientific meeting convened by the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology, including the American Physiological Society (APS) and other biomedical societies. The meeting features "nominated" lectures, symposia, research presentations, awards, a job placement center, and an exhibit of scientific equipment, supplies, and publications. This year's participating Societies are APS, American Association of Anatomists, American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, American Society for Investigative Pathology, American Society for Nutritional Sciences, and the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.


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