Improving pinniped diet analyses through identification of multiple skeletal structures in fecal samples


Browne, Patience, Jeffrey L. Laake, and Robert L. DeLong
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Marine mammal diet is typically characterized by identifying fish otoliths and cephalopod beaks retrieved from stomachs and fecal material (scats). The use and applicability of these techniques has been the matter of some debate given inherent biases associated with the method. Recent attempts to identify prey using skeletal remains in addition to beaks and otoliths are an improvement; however, difficulties incorporating these data into quantitative analyses have limited results for descriptive analyses such as frequency of occurrence. We attempted to characterize harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) diet in an area where seals co-occur with several salmon species, some endangered and all managed by state or federal agencies, or both. Although diet was extremely variable within sampling date, season, year, and between years, the frequency and number of individual prey were at least two times greater for most taxa when prey structures in addition to otoliths were identified. Estimating prey mass in addition to frequency and number resulted in an extremely different relative importance of prey in harbor seal diet. These data analyses are a necessary step in generating estimates of the size, total number, and annual biomass of a prey species eaten by pinnipeds for inclusion in fisheries management plans.