The population of Southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) at Macquarie Island has declined since the 1960s, and is thought to be due to changing oceanic conditions leading to reductions in the foraging success of Macquarie Island breeding females. To test this hypothesis, we used a 55-year-old data set on weaning size of southern elephant seals to quantify a decrease in weaning size from a period of population stability in 1950s to its present state of on-going decline. Being capital breeders, the size of elephant seal pups at weaning is a direct consequence of maternal foraging success in the preceding year. During the 1940-1950s, the mean of female pups at weaning was similar between the Heard and Macquarie Island populations, while the snout-tail-length length of male weaners from Heard Island were longer than their conspecifics at Macquarie Island. Additionally, the snout-tail-length of pups at weaning decreased by 3cm between the 1950s and 1990s in the Macquarie Island population, concurrent with the observed population decline. Given the importance of weaning size in determining first-year survival and recruitment rates, the decline in the size at weaning suggests that the decline in the Macquarie Island population has, to some extent, been driven by reduced maternal foraging success, consequent declines in the size of pups at weaning, leading to reduced first-year survival rates and recruitment of breeding females into the population 3 to 4 years later.
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Correction can be found in PLOS ONE, Vol. 13, No. 4, e0195688, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0195688.