Habitat and resource segregation of two sympatric seals in the North Sea
The study of ecological niche segregation in sympatric species is essential to understand ecosystem functioning and its response to potential changes. In the North Sea, sympatric grey and harbour seals may present competition for food resources sustained by intense fishing activities and recent increase of seal populations. In order to coexist and reduce inter-specific competition, sympatric species must segregate at least one aspect of their ecological niches: temporal, spatial or resource segregation. We aim to study the foraging resources and foraging distributions of grey seals and harbour seals and the potential competition between these species in the North Sea. Therefore, we analysed stable isotopic composition of C, N and S (δ13C, δ15N and δ34S values), and the concentrations of Hg and Se in blood of harbour and grey seals from the North Sea. Blood samples were collected on 45 grey seals and 37 harbour seals sampled along German and Scottish coasts. Stable isotope ratios were performed with an isotope ratio mass spectrometer coupled to an N-C-S elemental analyser for automated analyses. Total mercury concentrations (T-Hg) were determined by atomic absorption spectroscopy and Se concentrations by ICP-MS. The multi-tracer approach shown spatial and resource partitioning within grey and harbour seal living along German and Scottish coasts. Data indicate 1) the offshore foraging distribution of grey seals as reflected by the lower δ15N values and T-Hg concentrations and higher Se concentrations and 2) the inshore foraging distribution of harbour seals because of higher δ15N values and T-Hg concentrations and lower Se concentrations. The SIAR mixing model revealed 3) a more selective diet of grey seals compared to harbour seals and 4) the importance of sandeels in grey seal diet reflected by their high δ34S values. Lastly, diet ellipse overlaps between grey seals and harbour seals sampled along the German coasts suggested 5) a potential sharing of food resources, possibly due to the increase number of grey seals number in this area during the foraging season - all year except breeding and moulting periods. The multi-tracer approach of this study provides a more robust discrimination among diet resources and spatial foraging distributions of grey seals and harbour seals in the North Sea.