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Diving into the cold : individual variation in the winter foraging behaviour of the gentoo penguin Dier-McComb, Sarah P.

Abstract

Within any population, certain individuals outperform other members of their species. However, the precise basis for their advantage largely remains a mystery in ecology. In the last decade, research on the variability in foraging behaviour and diet between individuals has become a focus for ecologists as a potential mechanism for individual advantage. The numbers of breeding pairs of gentoo penguins in the Falkland Islands fluctuate annually, and while the precise cause of deferred breeding is unknown, carryover effects from the previous winter period are likely an important factor. Blood oxygen-carrying capacity and body mass are proposed to be critical carryover effects from winter influencing the reproductive trade-off of participating in breeding in the following spring, given their proposed influence on the diving ability and hence foraging capacity of penguins. In this thesis, I investigate (1) if interindividual variation in diving efficiency is associated with the condition of oxygen stores through i) blood oxygen-carrying capacity, using blood hemoglobin (Hb) and hematocrit (Hct) as indicators, and ii) body mass, and (2) if pre-breeding foraging effort differs between individuals based on their condition of oxygen stores and breeding status. Through monitoring penguins with time-depth recorders, I explored how Hb, Hct, and body mass influenced a penguin’s ability to dive efficiently (maximize bottom time) over their natural range of foraging depths. Subsequently, I monitored breeding participation and egg lay date to assess the reproductive status of individuals. Reduced blood oxygen-carrying capacity was found to negatively impact dive efficiency, and the effect was most influential during deeper dives. Penguins with higher Hb and an apparent optimum Hct of 52 % performed best. Pre-breeding foraging effort was predictive of reproductive status, as early laying penguins exhibited lower foraging effort and spent less time at sea than non-breeding penguins. How diving behaviour corresponds to breeding participation is essential to understand the effects ecosystem changes have on populations, and knowledge gained here could have broad implications for the conservation of this genus and many diving species.

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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International

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