Diurnal and seasonal variations in the duration and depth of the longest dives in southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina): possible physiological and behavioural constraints

Kimberley A. Bennett, B. J. McConnell, Mike A. Fedak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Citations (Scopus)


This study seeks to understand how the physiological constraints of diving may change on a daily and seasonal basis. Dive data were obtained from southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) from South Georgia using satellite relay data loggers. We analysed the longest (95th percentile) dive durations as proxies for physiological dive limits. A strong, significant relationship existed between the duration of these dives and the time of day and week of year in which they were performed. The depth of the deepest dives also showed a significant, but far less consistent, relationship with local time of day and season. Changes in the duration of the longest dives occurred irrespective of their depth. Dives were longest in the morning (04:00-12:00 h) and shortest in the evening (16:00-00:00 h). The size of the fluctuation varied among animals from 4.0 to 20.0 min. The daily pattern in dive depth was phase-shifted in relation to the diurnal rhythm in dive duration. Dives were deeper at midday and shallower around midnight. Greater daily changes in duration occurred in seals feeding in the open ocean than in those foraging on the continental shelf. The seasonal peak in the duration of the longest dives coincided with austral midwinter. The size of the increase in dive duration from autumn/spring to winter ranged from 11.5 to 30.0 min. Changes in depth of the longest dives were not consistently associated with particular times of year. The substantial diurnal and seasonal fluctuations in maximum dive duration may be a result of changes in the physiological capacity to remain submerged, in addition to temporal changes in the ecological constraints on dive behaviour. We speculate about the role of melatonin as a hormonal mediator of diving capability.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)649-662
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 15 Feb 2001


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