Collaborative Research: Abandoned Elephant Seal Colonies in Antarctica: Integration of Genetic, Isotopic, and Geologic Approaches toward Understanding Holocene Environmental Change
During previous NSF-sponsored research, the PI's discovered that southern elephant seal colonies once existed along the Victoria Land coast (VLC) of Antarctica, a region where they are no longer observed. Molted seal skin and hair occur along 300 km of coastline, more than 1000 km from any extant colony. The last record of a seal at a former colony site is at ~A.D. 1600. Because abandonment occurred prior to subantarctic sealing, disappearance of the VLC colony probably was due to environmental factors, possibly cooling and encroachment of land-fast, perennial sea ice that made access to haul-out sites difficult. The record of seal inhabitation along the VLC, therefore, has potential as a proxy for climate change. Elephant seals are a predominantly subantarctic species with circumpolar distribution. Genetic studies have revealed significant differentiation among populations, particularly with regard to that at Macquarie I., which is the extant population nearest to the abandoned VLC colony. Not only is the Macquarie population unique genetically, but it is has undergone unexplained decline of 2%/yr over the last 50 years3. In a pilot study, genetic analyses showed a close relationship between the VLC seals and those at Macquarie I. An understanding of the relationship between the two populations, as well as of the environmental pressures that led to the demise of the VLC colonies, will provide a better understanding of present-day population genetic structure, the effect of environmental change on seal populations, and possibly the reasons underlying the modern decline at Macquarie Island.
This project addresses several key research problems: (1) Why did elephant seals colonize and then abandon the VLC? (2) What does the elephant seal record reveal about Holocene climate change and sea-ice conditions? (3) What were the foraging strategies of the seals and did these strategies change over time as climate varied? (4) How does the genetic structure of the VLC seals relate to extant populations? (5) How did genetic diversity change over time and with colony decline? (6) Using ancient samples to estimate mtDNA mutation rates, what can be learned about VLC population dynamics over time? (7) What was the ecological relationship between elephant seals and Adelie penguins that occupied the same sites, but apparently at different times? The proposed work includes the professional training of young researchers and incorporation of data into graduate and undergraduate courses.
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