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Southern elephant seal vagrants in Ecuador: a symptom of La Niña events? Páez-Rosas, Diego; Riofrío-Lazo, Marjorie; Ortega, Jorge; Morales, Juan de Dios; Carvajal, Raúl; Alava, Juan J Jun 20, 2018

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MARINE RECORD Open AccessSouthern elephant seal vagrants inEcuador: a symptom of La Niña events?Diego Páez-Rosas1,2, Marjorie Riofrío-Lazo1,3, Jorge Ortega4, Juan de Dios Morales5, Raúl Carvajal6and Juan José Alava7,8*AbstractBackground: Extralimital observations of pinnipeds are important to understand the effects of changing climateson our oceans and the distribution of these species. The southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) is a knownvagrant species that moves over long distances. We report three new records of M. leonina in interior freshwatertributaries of the Guayas River Estuary Basin (Gulf of Guayaquil) and northern coast of Ecuador between October2017 and January 2018 during a cold episode of La Nina event in the southeastern Pacific.Results: The elephant seals were identified according to their large size (~ 5 m for adult and 2–3 m for juveniles/subadults), the head to neck size ratio, and the size and external morphology of the proboscis, which was used asa key trait to differentiate M. leonina from the Northern elephant seal (M. angustirostris). The observations of M. leoninain Ecuador highlight an extreme movement covering an assumed total distance of approximately 8000 km from thecircumpolar region. The cold event “La Niña” with sea surface temperature anomalies ranging − 1.5 °C to − 0.5 °C inOctober 2017 likely triggered the extralimital movements of these animals.Conclusion: Recurring observations of M. leonina in the Guayaquil Gulf suggest the importance of this highly productiveregion and tropical estuarine-riverine habitats as temporary haulout sites for resting. These new findings indicate thatvagrant individuals influenced by oceanographic events and eco-physiological processes are reaching this region morefrequently than previously thought.Keywords: Mirounga leonina, Southern elephant seal, Extralimital movement, Gulf of Guayaquil, Ecuador, La NiñaBackgroundThe southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) is the lar-gest pinniped in the world and is not habitually found intropical areas because of its circumpolar and sub-Antarcticdistribution in the southern ocean (Le Boeuf and Laws1994; Jefferson et al. 2015). Adult southern elephant sealspresent a marked sexual dimorphism due to their polygyn-ous system (Le Boeuf 1974; Baldi et al. 1996). Adult malescan be much larger than females and have a long proboscis;males reach a length of up to 5–6 m and a maximumweight of 4000 kg, while females measure ~ 3 m and weigh400–900 kg (Le Boeuf and Laws 1994; Modig 1996;Jefferson et al. 2015). The global southern elephant sealpopulation has been estimated at 700,000 individualsgreater than one year of age, with an annual production of189,000 pups (Le Boeuf and Laws 1994; Lewis andCampagna 2005; McMahon et al. 2005).This species is widely distributed in the circumpolar andsub-Antarctic islands, where it is assembled in three popu-lation groups: South Georgia, Kerguelen and Macquarie(Deméré et al. 2003; McMahon et al. 2005). The SouthGeorgia population group is comprised of the populationsexisting on the South American continent, including theValdés Peninsula and Malvinas Islands (Slade et al. 1998;Hoelzel et al. 2001), as well as a small colony located inAinsworth Bay, Magallanes Region (i.e. XII Region ofMagallanes) and Chilean Antarctica (Vargas 2012). Breed-ing and moulting haulouts, as well as winter haulouts ofsouthern elephant seals are also found at Marion Islands,South Africa (Kirkman et al. 2001; Kirkman et al. 2003;Kirkman et al. 2004).* Correspondence: j.alava@oceans.ubc.ca7Fundación Ecuatoriana para el Estudio de Mamíferos Marinos (FEMM),Guayaquil, Ecuador8Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia,Vancouver, BC, CanadaFull list of author information is available at the end of the article© The Author(s). 2018 Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, andreproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link tothe Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver(http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/) applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.Páez-Rosas et al. Marine Biodiversity Records  (2018) 11:13 https://doi.org/10.1186/s41200-018-0149-yThe life cycle of M. leonina has two terrestrial stages, in-cluding a stage dedicated to moulting (predominantly fromDecember to February) and another for reproduction(September–October). This species has two ocean lifestages, i.e. post-moulting and post-reproduction (Campagnaet al. 1993; Le Boeuf and Laws 1994). During thenon-breeding season, adult and sub-adult males tend toundertake large migrations over thousands of kilometers inthe Antarctic Ocean for feeding, with some vagrant individ-uals observed beyond or outside of their normal range(Hindell and McMahon 2000; Fabiani et al. 2003; Lewisand Campagna 2005; Lewis et al. 2006; Campagna et al.2006; Reisinger and Bester 2010; Jefferson et al. 2015).Oceanographic-atmospheric events such as El Niño (i.e.ENSO events) and La Niña have severe impacts affectingthe migration patterns and feeding trips of pinnipeds(Alava and Salazar 2006; Avila et al. 2015; Alava andAurioles-Gamboa 2017; Elorriaga-Verplancken et al. 2016,Páez-Rosas et al. 2017; Quintana-Rizzo et al. 2017). Thesechanges are generally associated with the availability offood due to the displacement of prey towards colderregions or deeper waters (Soto et al. 2004; Trites et al.2007). For instance, La Niña is accompanied by a decreasein sea surface temperature (SST), producing changes inocean circulation dynamics around the South Americancontinent and eastern Tropical Pacific (Kessler 2006).This event can lead to anomalies in the distributionalpattern of tropical species, or in the migration ofspecies from relatively cold waters to warmer areas(Ballance et al. 2006).The dispersal capacity of pinnipeds has contributedto the movement of several species (e.g., harbour seals,Phoca vitulina; hooded seal, Cystophora cristata;southern elephants seals, M. leonina, Juan Fernandezfur seal, Arctocephalus philippii; Galapagos fur seals;Arctocephalus galapagoensis; Guadalupe fur seals, Arc-tocephalus towsendi) hundreds or even thousands ofkilometers away from their feeding or breeding areas(Johnson 1990; Reeves et al. 2002; Alava and Carvajal2005; Avila et al. 2015; Alava and Aurioles-Gamboa2017; Páez-Rosas et al. 2017; Quintana-Rizzo et al.2017), with many sightings involving cases associatedwith vagrant adult individuals at sea and along coastalregions during their feeding trips. Southern elephantseal adults have been reported resting on the coasts ofBrazil, Ecuador, Galapagos Islands, Chile, Panama,Peru, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand(Reeves et al. 2002; Magalhães et al. 2003; Vargas andSteinfurth 2004; Lewis and Campagna 2005; Alava andCarvajal 2005; Lewis et al. 2006; Sepúlveda et al. 2007;Acevedo et al. 2016; Mayorga et al. 2017; Stewart andFelix 2018). Of particular relevance here is the pres-ence of southern elephant seals reported in 1998 and2002 in the Gulf of Guayaquil, Ecuador (Alava andCarvajal 2005), where the authors suspected both ani-mals to be vagrant M. leonina and photos of the ani-mals suggest this identification is reliable (Alava andCarvajal 2005; Jefferson et al. 2015).In this work, we report apparently healthy M. leonina inthe Guayas River Basin (Gulf of Guayaquil) and onEcuador’s north coast, and discuss the possible influenceof La Niña event as a driving atmospheric-oceanographicforce affecting the distribution and behavioral patterns ofthe species.MethodsFour sightings of elephant seals in the Gulf of Guayaquiland on the coast of Ecuador between October 2017 andJanuary 2018 are described here. The first record islocated at the Babahoyo River sub-basin, which is one ofthe main tributaries of the Guayas River, in the Gulf ofGuayaquil (Fig. 1). The Guayas River is formed at theconfluence of the Babahoyo and Daule Rivers. Theelephant seal was first sighted on 24 October 2017 inapparently healthy condition (i.e. signs of emaciationand external injuries were not observed) and hauling outon the riverbanks of the Milagro River (2°6′33″ S, 79°41′10″ W), a small river located at the Yaguachi Munici-pality (Guayas Province) approximately 75 km from theouter estuary of the Guayaquil Gulf at the EcuadorianPacific (Fig. 1). The elephant seal was photographed(Fig. 2a), and monitored by the Wildlife Department(Ministry of Environment of Ecuador) for a period of24 h. Subsequently, the Civil Defense and Firefighterdepartments arrived at the site to prevent harassmentfrom the local people and allow the elephant seal tomove from this river and enter the Babahoyo River.Following this event, an elephant seal was spotted on28 October 2017 and assumed to be the same individualdue to the similar size and infrequent occurrence of thisspecies in the region (Fig. 2b). The animal was swim-ming farther north of the Milagro River along the ArenalRiver (1°46′22″ S, 79°39′58″ W). The Arenal River is asmall inland river from the Municipality of Baba (LosRíos Province) flowing into the Babahoyo River, andlocated at approximately 105 km from the outer estuaryof the Guayaquil Gulf. After these two sightings, theanimal was no longer recorded in the region, suggestingthat the elephant seal left the coast and continued withits feeding trip in the Pacific Ocean.Succeeding these sightings, two other reports of elephantseals were made along the Ecuadorian coast. A second indi-vidual (Fig. 2c) was observed on 10 December 2017. Thisanimal was spotted for about two hours hauling out aroundan inland freshwater flooded and mud-covered field andthe riverbanks of a narrow creek at the Yaguachi Municipal-ity, Guayas Province (2°5'48.5'' S, 79°41'41.4'' W). The thirdanimal was recorded in the northern coast of Ecuador atPáez-Rosas et al. Marine Biodiversity Records  (2018) 11:13 Page 2 of 8Fig. 1 Map showing the main populations of Mirounga leonina existing in the South American continent and part of the Antarctic continent, andthe geographical location of Milagro (Yaguachi Municipality), Arenal (Baba Municipality) rivers, and the Babahoyo River in the interior basin ofGuayas River (Gulf of Guayaquil, Ecuador). Black triangles (▲) indicate where the sightings were recorded in October and December 2017Páez-Rosas et al. Marine Biodiversity Records  (2018) 11:13 Page 3 of 8Tonsupa, Esmeraldas Province (0°53'12" S, 79°48'46" W),on 24 January 2018. This individual was resting on thebeach, where it was exhibiting signs of moulting (Fig. 2d).Apparently, the same animal was spotted ten days laterfurther south in Atacames, Esmeraldas Province (0°52′ N,79°50′ W) on 3 February 2018 by personnel from the Min-istry of Environment of Ecuador, who monitored the animaland corroborated that was the same individual observed inTonsupa (R. Carvajal, pers. comm., 5 February 2018).The taxonomic identification of the sighted animals wasbased on the external morphological attributes, includingbody size and coloration, ratio of neck to head size, andthe shape and size of the proboscis, following guides ofmarine mammal species identification (e.g., Reeves et al.1992; Reeves et al. 2002; Jefferson et al. 2015).Given the morphological similarity between the south-ern elephant seal and its congener species the northernelephant seal (M. angustirostris), we performed a photo-graphic review comparing and contrasting images ofthese two species. This includes photos of the largemales described in this work (Figs. 2a, b, and 3a), aphoto of an adult male of M. angustirostris from SanBenito Islands, Mexico (Fig. 3b; taken by the first author,Dr. D. Paéz-Rosas) and photos of a subadult and adultmale M. leonina from the Valdez Peninsula, Argentina(Fig. 3c and d; courtesy of Dr. M. Drago). Since in previ-ous sightings of elephant seals in 1998 and 2002 in theGulf of Guayaquil (Alava and Carvajal 2005), it was notpossible to describe the species with exact morphologicaldetails, the photographic records of these two individ-uals were also revisited.Furthermore, the possible influence on the displacementof elephant seals towards tropical waters in Ecuador in theEastern Pacific by negative anomalies in SST was exam-ined. Then, the link to La Niña events, which are associ-ated with cold conditions and primary productivityincrease in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, was alsoassessed. Monthly anomalies of SST time series data werecalculated with respect to historical climatological values(i.e. 1971–2000) in this region; SST values were obtainedfrom the NOAA website (http://www.emc.ncep.noaa.gov/research/cmb/sst_analysis/).ResultsThe pinniped observed on October 24–28 was identifiedas an adult male M. leonina. Based on our observationsand the analysis of Figs. 2a-b and 3a, this individual mightcorrespond to a specimen of a total length of 4–5 m andweight of 2000 kg. Conversely, the individuals sighted onDecember 10 and January 24 were identified as immatureor subadult animals, resembling a ~ 2 m-length youngmale (Fig. 2c), and a subadult male of ~ 4 m of length(Fig. 2d), respectively.From the photographic review of images of southernelephant seals and northern elephant seals, a taxonomicidentification of these animals was achieved. The majorFig. 2 Southern elephant seals (M. leonina) observed in the interior Guayas River Estuary Basin (a–c) and the Ecuadorian north coast (d) in 2017. Thesize of both the proboscis and body of this individual are diagnostic traits for an adult male of M. leonina. a, b Photos of the adult male (~ 5 m length)hauling out on the riverbanks of the Milagro and Arenal rivers. c Photo of the juvenile was observed in Yaguachi Municipality; the snout without adeveloped proboscis, as well as the size of this animal are attributes of a juvenile for this species (Photo credit: Newspaper El Milagreño). d Photo ofsubadult male with signs of moulting, observed resting on a beach of Tonsupa (Photo credit: Ministry of Environment of the Esmeraldas Province)Páez-Rosas et al. Marine Biodiversity Records  (2018) 11:13 Page 4 of 8distinctive, external morphological trait to differentiatethe two species in males is the proboscis, which isshorter and smaller in M. leonina (Figs. 2a and 3a) com-pared to the proboscis of M. angustirostris, shown inFig. 3b (Jefferson et al. 2015; Dr. L. Huckstadt, pers.comm.; Dr. F. Elorriaga-Verplancken, pers. comm., Oc-tober 2017). While both species possess an enlargednose, the proboscis in M. leonina hangs down in front ofthe mouth (Fig. 3a, c and d), while the proboscis in M.angustirostris is significantly longer, and can extend 15–25 cm below the lower lip (Jefferson et al. 2015). Likewise,in adult males, the neck is bulkier in relation to the head(i.e. the head to neck size ratio) in M. leonina (Fig. 3a, d)compared to that of M. angustirostris (Fig. 3b).As for the juvenile M. leonina, the individual depicted inthe Fig. 2c showed similar features to the elephant sealsobserved in both 1998 and 2002 in the Gulf of Guayaquil(see Fig. 1 in Alava and Carvajal 2005). Comparably, thesubadult male observed at Tonsupa (Fig. 2d), showedsimilar features to the subadult elephant seals of the ValdezPeninsula (Fig. 3c). Both individuals (Fig. 2c, d) had un-developed proboscises and good body conditions. Followingthe sighting of the animal recorded in Tonsupa, a subadultM. leonina was observed shortly after at Pianguita beach (3°52′38″N, 77°1′36″W; Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca,Colombia), in late January 2018 and in the Choco region(Dr. I. Avila, pers. comm., January and April 2018).Based on monthly anomalies of SST time series datacalculated with respect to historical climatological valuesfrom 1971 to 2000 in the southeastern Pacific region, thepresence of La Niña event was confirmed during October2017, as illustrated in Fig. 4. These negative temperatureanomalies (i.e. -1.5 °C to − 0.5 °C) and cold conditions aredirectly related to an increase in primary productivitylevels around the area of incidence of the HumboldtCurrent (Ballance et al. 2006; Wang and Fiedler 2006).Therefore, we believe that the displacement of theseindividual seals towards tropical waters in Ecuador can beassociated to a cooling La Niña event registered in theregion.Discussion and conclusionsVagrant individuals of M. leonina have been reported toreach the central coast of Chile and Juan FernandezIslands, Ecuador (Gulf of Guayaquil), Brazil’s coast,southern Africa, southern Australian coast, Tasmaniaand New Zealand, as well as the coast of Oman (ArabianPeninsula), and the Island of Taboga (Gulf of Panama),which was the northernmost record thus far reported(Lodi and Siciliano 1989; Johnson 1990; Reeves et al.2002; Magalhães et al. 2003; Alava and Carvajal 2005;Sepúlveda et al. 2007; Jefferson et al. 2015; Acevedo etal. 2016; Mayorga et al. 2017; Stewart and Felix 2018).While the moulting and non-breeding seasons are crit-ical stages obliging elephant seals to disperse to differentfeeding grounds, and, temporarily, haul out on land aspart of their annual cycle during December–February(Campagna et al. 1993; Le Boeuf and Laws 1994), epider-mal moult (i.e. sloughing and shedding of patches of furwith skin attached) was apparently observed in the sub-adult sighted (Fig. 2d) at Tonsupa (Esmeraldas) on January2018, but not in the individuals recorded in October orDecember 2017, nor in the elephant seals recorded inDecember 1998 and February 2002 (Alava and CarvajalFig. 3 External morphological comparisons illustrating the morphological differences of the adult male M. leonina observed in Milagro River,Ecuador (a) versus an adult male M. angustirostris observed in the San Benito Islands, Mexico (b). Adult (c) and subadult (d) males of M. leoninaobserved in the Peninsula of Valdez, Argentina, are also shown here as comparative references to corroborate the species identification. Note theshorter length of the proboscis in M. leonina adult male (a) compared to the longer proboscis of an adult male of M. angustirostris (b), which is akey distinctive feature to differentiate M. leonina from M. angustirostrisPáez-Rosas et al. Marine Biodiversity Records  (2018) 11:13 Page 5 of 8Fig. 4 (See legend on next page.)Páez-Rosas et al. Marine Biodiversity Records  (2018) 11:13 Page 6 of 82005). Thus, moulting cannot be considered thus far asthe only physiological factor influencing the arrival of ele-phant seals on Ecuador’s coast.The ecological implications of these new extralimitalrecords are important and illustrate the possible influenceof climatic-oceanographic variations on the migratorypatterns of M. leonina. In fact, the adult male reportedhere is assumed to have dispersed over a geographic rangeof ~ 8000 km from the circumpolar/sub-Antarctic regionin the Southern Ocean to tropical freshwater systems inthe Gulf of Guayaquil, Ecuador. Because of the good bodycondition (i.e. emaciation or dehydration was not ob-served) of the observed adult male and juveniles, and thesimilarity in the sighting locations where subadult individ-uals were reported in 1998 and 2002 (during periods whenthe La Niña event also took place (Alava and Carvajal2005), this work highlights the importance of La Niña as adriving environmental/natural force influencing the distri-bution and migratory behavior of this species.This cold event is likely to have influenced or stimulatedthese elephant seals to pursue the cool, nutrient rich massof water along the South American Pacific coast (Fig. 4),and thus extending their foraging trip outside the estab-lished geographic range, possibly explaining their arrivalto the rivers of the Ecuadorian coast as previouslyproposed (Alava and Carvajal 2005). Top predators fromSouthern Ocean and Antarctic, including pinnipeds (i.e.southern elephant seals, M. leonina, crabeater seals,Lobodon carcinophaga, and Weddell seals, Leptonychotesweddelli) from a changing Southern Ocean and Antarctic,forage in regions where physical climatic forcing andspecific oceanographic features are responsible forenhanced and increased availability of prey (Costa et al.2010). In this context, we further postulate that thepresence of sub-Antarctic pinnipeds such as southernelephant seals outside their habitual feeding orreproduction grounds would be associated with coolingperiods such as La Niña.These observations emphasize the need to strengthencollaboration and cooperation with other research groupsnot only at the local or regional level, but along the Pacificcoast of South America and Antarctica with the aim todevelop and maintain a monitoring and research program.These monitoring approaches can include satellite track-ing and telemetry deployed in pinnipeds to be used asoceanographic sentinels to understand oceanographic dataand key features of the southeastern Pacific, wheretraditional scientific oceanographic cruise and shipboardplatform are limited or absent (Costa et al. 2010). This ini-tiative will also help to assess and track distributional andbehavioral patterns of pinnipeds throughout South Amer-ica, mainly when there are years with anomalous oceano-graphic conditions that may affect the distribution,regional movements and migration of vagrant species.AbbreviationsENSO: El Niño Southern Oscillation; SST: Sea surface temperatureAcknowledgmentsWe thank the Ministry of the Environment of Ecuador for providing uswith the information about the sightings and the state of the animal.Finally, we thank Dr. Leonardo Zurita and MSc. Daniela Alarcón-Rualesfor help in the preparation of Fig. 1, as well as Dr. Fernando Elorriaga-Verplancken, Dr. Luis Huckstadt, Dr. Massimiliano Drago and Dr. IsabelÁvila for their valuable advice for the identification of the species, thefacilitation of the photographs and comments during the planning ofthis manuscript. We are indebt with Dr. Victoria Otton for proof readingand providing edits and insights to improve this manuscript.FundingThe University of British Columbia (UBC, Canada), the Universidad SanFrancisco de Quito (USFQ-Ecuador) and Fundación Ecuatoriana para elEstudio de Mamíferos Marinos (FEMM) provided logistical and financialsupport during the planning and preparation of this work.Authors’ contributionsDP-R and MR-L drafted the manuscript with key contributions from JJAand RC. JO organized logistical field support and monitoring efforts toidentify and document the presence of the species. JdDM participatedin the monitoring and took original photos for species identification.All authors read and approved the final manuscript.Ethics approval and consent to participateNot applicable.Competing interestsThe authors declare that they have no competing interests.Publisher’s NoteSpringer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims inpublished maps and institutional affiliations.Author details1Universidad San Francisco de Quito and Galapagos Science Center, IslasGalápagos, San Cristóbal, Ecuador. 2Dirección Parque Nacional Galápagos,Unidad Técnica Operativa San Cristóbal, Islas Galápagos, San Cristóbal,Ecuador. 3Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias Marinas, Instituto PolitécnicoNacional (CICIMAR-IPN), La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico. 4DirecciónProvincial de Ambiente del Guayas, Unidad de Patrimonio Natural, Ministeriode Ambiente del Ecuador (MAE), Guayaquil, Ecuador. 5Wild GYE Initiative,Investigador-Fotógrafo independiente, Guayaquil, Ecuador. 6ConservationInternational-Ecuador, Guayaquil, Ecuador. 7Fundación Ecuatoriana para elEstudio de Mamíferos Marinos (FEMM), Guayaquil, Ecuador. 8Institute for theOceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada.(See figure on previous page.)Fig. 4 Monthly negative anomalies of sea surface temperature (SST) in the Southeastern Pacific Ocean during October 2017 as an example toillustrate the presence of La Nina during the occurrence for southern elephant seals from October 2017 to January 2018 in Ecuador. The bluecontour tones indicate where the SST are below the historical climatological value over the baseline reference period 1971–2000. The contourfor SST anomalies in the map are shown in an interval range of 0.5 °C. The SST anomaly scale is in °CPáez-Rosas et al. Marine Biodiversity Records  (2018) 11:13 Page 7 of 8Received: 11 December 2017 Accepted: 11 April 2018ReferencesAcevedo J, Aguayo-Lobo A, Brito JL, Torres D, Cáceres B, Vila A, Cardeña M,Acuña P. Review of the current distribution of southern elephant seals in theeastern South Pacific. New Zeal J Mar Fresh Res. 2016;50(2):240–58.Alava JJ, Aurioles-Gamboa D. Introduction to tropical and subtropical pinnipeds.In: Alava JJ, editor. Tropical pinnipeds: bio-ecology, threats and conservation.Boca Raton: CRC Press and Taylor & Francis Group; 2017. p. 1–11.Alava JJ, Carvajal R. First records of elephant seals on the Guayaquil gulf, Ecuador:on the occurrence of either a Mirounga leonina or M. angustirostris. 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