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Oxygen stores, carbon dioxide accumulation and nutritional status as determinants of diving ability of Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) Gerlinsky, Carling Dawn

Abstract

The diving ability of marine mammals is limited by body oxygen stores (TBO) and rates of oxygen depletion (diving metabolic rate; DMR), which can be expressed as the calculated aerobic dive limit (cADL). Diving ability must also be influenced by CO₂ production and control of ventilation. I investigated the factors that limit the diving ability of Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus), including the effect of nutritional stress on the cADL. Specifically, I 1) determined the cADL of Steller sea lions by measuring TBO and DMR, 2) determined whether nutritional stress alters the cADL and 3) examined the post-dive elimination of CO₂, and the sensitivity of Steller sea lions to hypercapnia (high inspired CO₂). TBO was estimated from measured blood oxygen stores and body composition―and metabolic rate, breathing frequency and dive behaviour were recorded prior to and during a period of nutritional stress where animals lost ~10% of their mass. Animals breathed ambient, hypercapnic or hypoxic (low O₂) air to experimentally alter pCO₂ levels and decrease rates of CO₂ elimination and O₂ consumption. I found that the TBO (35.9 ml O₂ kg-¹) and cADL (3.0 minutes) in actively diving Steller sea lions were lower than previously reported for other species of sea lions and fur seals. I also found a significant increase in mass-specific DMR and blood volume (resulting in higher TBO) in nutritionally stressed animals that resulted in a longer cADL. Hypercapnia was found to significantly affect ventilation, but had no effect on dive behaviour―and elimination of CO₂ between dives took longer than replenishing O₂ stores. Overall, nutritional stress and hypercapnic conditions did not directly limit the diving ability of the Steller sea lions, but had an indirect effect on foraging efficiency by increasing the time they spent on the surface between dives. Accumulation of CO₂ over several dives in a foraging bout also appeared to reduce foraging efficiency, which likely ultimately limits the time a sea lion spends in apnea and therefore overall foraging duration and net energy intake.

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