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Published in: Journal of Experimental Biology, Vol. 203, 2000.


All underwater activities of diving mammals are constrained by the need for surface gas exchange. Our aim was to measure respiratory rate (fb) and heart rate (fh) at the surface between dives in free-ranging northern elephant seals Mirounga angustirostris. We recorded fb and fh acoustically in six translocated juveniles, 1.8-2. 4 years old, and three migrating adult males from the rookery at Ano Nuevo, California, USA. To each seal, we attached a diving instrument to record the diving pattern, a satellite tag to track movements and location, a digital audio tape recorder or acoustic datalogger with an external hydrophone to record the sounds of respiration and fh at the surface, and a VHF transmitter to facilitate recovery. During surface intervals averaging 2.2+/−0.4 min, adult males breathed a mean of 32.7+/−5.4 times at a rate of 15. 3+/−1.8 breaths min(−)(1) (means +/− s.d., N=57). Mean fh at the surface was 84+/−3 beats min(−)(1). The fb of juveniles was 26 % faster than that of adult males, averaging 19.2+/−2.2 breaths min(−)(1) for a mean total of 41.2+/−5.0 breaths during surface intervals lasting 2.6+/−0.31 min. Mean fh at the surface was 106+/−3 beats min(−)(1). fb and fh did not change significantly over the course of surface intervals. Surface fb and fh were not clearly associated with levels of exertion, such as rapid horizontal transit or apparent foraging, or with measures of immediately previous or subsequent diving performance, such as diving duration, diving depth or swimming speed. Together, surface respiration rate and the duration of the preceding dive were significant predictors of surface interval duration. This implies that elephant seals minimize surface time spent loading oxygen depending on rates of oxygen uptake and previous depletion of stores.

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