Spatial variation in female southern elephant seal mass change assessed by an accurate non-invasive photogrammetry method

08 May 2014

Physically weighing large marine mammals sequentially over time has presented researchers with a logistical challenge and has severely limited sample sizes. Using a well-established photogrammetry method we developed a simple mathematical method to calculate accurate mass measurements at specific stages in the life cycle of a top marine predator. Female southern elephant seals (n523) at Marion Island were sampled sequentially using photogrammetry and three-dimensional models (based on each photogrammetry project) were built for estimation of body mass. Simple equations were applied to obtain mass at critical instances in their life cycle. Marion Island elephant seal mass data was compared to data obtained from physically weighed elephant seals from King George, South Georgia and Macquarie islands. Females from Marion Island are smaller, but their percentage lactation mass loss is similar to females from these other populations. The similarity of percentage mass loss during lactation between different female populations illustrates the accuracy and practicality of the photogrammetric method over a temporal scale. Photogrammetric mass estimation can be used alongside datasets of physically weighed animals and can greatly benefit ecology and life history studies.