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How many seals were there? The global shelf loss during the Last Glacial Maximum and its effect on the size and distribution of grey seal populations

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Abstract

Predicting how marine mammal populations act to habitat changes will be essential for developing conservation management strategies by marine mammal ecologists in the 21st century. Responses to previous environmental change may be informative in the development of predictive models. Here we describe the likely effects of the last ice age on grey seal population size and distribution. We use satellite telemetry data to define grey seal foraging habitat in terms of the temperature and depth ranges exploited by the contemporary populations. We estimate the available extent of such habitat in the North Atlantic at present and at the last glacial maximum (LGM); taking account of glacial and seasonal sea-ice coverage, estimated reductions of sea-level (123m) and seawater temperature hind-casts from GLAMAP-2000. Most of the extensive continental shelf waters (North Sea, Baltic Sea and Scotian Shelf), currently supporting >95% of grey seals, were unavailable at the LGM. A combination of lower sea-level and extensive ice-sheets, massively increased seasonal sea-ice coverage and southerly extent of cold water would have pushed grey seals into areas with no significant shelf waters. The habitat during the LGM might have been as small as 4%, when compared to today’s extent and grey seal populations may have fallen to similarly. An alternative scenario involving a major change to a pelagic/bathy-pelagic foraging niche cannot be discounted. However, hooded seals that appear to out-compete and effectively exclude grey seals from such habitat currently dominate that niche. If as seems likely, the grey seal population fell to very low levels it would have remained low for several thousand years before expanding into current habitats over the last 12000 years or so.
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Original languageEnglish
Article numbere53000
JournalPLoS One
Volume7
Issue number12
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 26 Dec 2012

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ID: 21755872