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Durham e-Theses
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Quantifying individual variation in fine-scale time and energy trade-offs in breeding grey seals: How do differing behavioural types solve these trade-offs?

SHUERT, COURTNEY,REBECCA (2019) Quantifying individual variation in fine-scale time and energy trade-offs in breeding grey seals: How do differing behavioural types solve these trade-offs? Doctoral thesis, Durham University.



Lactation is one of the most energetically demanding periods of any female mammal’s life history, where individuals strike a balance with limited resources between their daily activity and towards the growth of their offspring, while still maintaining enough energy stores to maintain themselves in the process. Capital breeding systems mean that females must sustain themselves and their offspring while fasting exclusively on energy reserves acquired beforehand. Female phocids as a result must deal with pressures of a brief terrestrial existence where trade-offs in time, behaviour, energy, and responsiveness to the environment can have tangible consequences to short-term fitness and health.

The aim of this thesis was to use new techniques, specifically animal-borne accelerometers and heart rate monitors, to track behaviour and physiology and assess the inherent trade-offs therein through the core duration of lactation in a capital breeding phocid, the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus). Female grey seals were equipped with biologging devices on the Isle of May over three consecutive breeding seasons. Using accelerometry and heart rate techniques, I aimed (1) to remotely classify behaviour using machine learning techniques, (2) to assess trade-offs in time-activity for the duration of lactation, (3) to build a holistic picture of energy allocation within the species, and (4) to develop new methods for tracking heart rate and breathing for terrestrial mammals using grey seals as a model. I also assessed the effect that consistent individual variability in behaviour, stress-coping styles, may have on the methods developed here and how they may drive behaviour and energy trade-offs over time.

Accelerometers presented a useful way to remotely track several key behaviours, accurately classifying the core static behaviours over lactation. Consistent individual differences in stress-coping styles, as determined from measures of heart rate variability, modulated almost every aspect of behaviour and physiology measured in this study. More specifically, consistent trade-offs were identified for grey seal mothers between balancing time spent in a state of rest against remaining vigilant across multiple contexts, but also that these individual differences drove how individuals manage and expend that energy, ultimately resulting in differences in short-term fitness outcomes. Effort towards nursing, however, appeared to be largely fixed. Individual differences in energy management also appear to result in different levels of plasticity to environmental pressures, suggesting that future ambient conditions may not be suitable for breeding seals. This thesis also successfully detected breathing rates on land, revealing new evidence as to the energy saving and water conservation benefits of regularly engaging in periods of breath-hold while at rest.

Overall, this thesis has provided new tools for exploring behaviour and physiology, and the inherent trade-offs therein, with minimal disturbance to lactating phocid seals. These differences, while minute in the scope of evolutionary constraints, may be among the most important drivers for the success and survival of populations in the face of greater environmental variability as the climate continues to change.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:stress-coping styles, grey seal, behaviour, lactation, accelerometer, heart rate variability
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Science > Biological and Biomedical Sciences, School of
Thesis Date:2019
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:06 Nov 2019 15:06

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