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Environment and Activity Affect Skin Temperature in Breeding Adult Male Elephant Seals (Mirounga angustirostris)

The large body size and high rates of metabolic heat production associated with male mating success in polygynous systems creates potential thermoregulatory challenges for species breeding in warm climates. This is especially true for marine predators carrying large blubber reserves intended for thermoregulation in cold water and fuel provision during extended fasts. Thermographic images were used to measure changes in skin temperature (TS) in adult male northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) over the breeding season. Environmental variables, primarily ambient temperature and solar radiation, were the principal determinants of mean and maximum TS. When controlled for environmental variables, dominance rank significantly impacted mean TS, being highest in alpha males. Behavioral activity significantly influenced TS but in a counter-intuitive way, with inactive males exhibiting the highest TS. This was likely due to strong impacts of environmental variables on the kinds of behavior exhibited, with males being less active on warm, humid days at peak solar radiation. We classified thermal windows as areas in which TS was one standard deviation greater than mean TS for the individual seal within a thermograph. Thermal features suggest active physiological thermoregulation during and after combat and significant circulatory adaptations for heat dumping, as evidenced by recurring locations of thermal windows representing widely varying TS values. Frequent observations of localized TS above 37°C, particularly after combat, suggest the production of thermoregulatory stress during breeding behavior. Our findings demonstrate the importance of environmental drivers in shaping activity patterns during breeding and provide evidence for thermoregulatory costs of successful breeding in large polygynous males.

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