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Comparative feeding strategies and kinematics in phocid seals: suction without specialized skull morphology [RESEARCH ARTICLE]

Sarah S. Kienle, Holly Hermann-Sorensen, Daniel P. Costa, Colleen Reichmuth, and Rita S. Mehta

Feeding kinematic studies inform our understanding of behavioral diversity and provide a framework for studying the flexibility and constraints of different prey acquisition strategies. However, little is known about the feeding behaviors used by many marine mammals. We characterized the feeding behaviors and associated kinematics of captive bearded (Erignathus barbatus), harbor (Phoca vitulina), ringed (Pusa hispida), and spotted (Phoca largha) seals through controlled feeding trials. All species primarily used a suction feeding strategy but were also observed using a biting strategy, specifically pierce feeding. Suction feeding was distinct from pierce feeding and was characterized by significantly faster feeding times, smaller gape and gape angles, smaller gular depressions, and fewer jaw motions. Most species showed higher variability in suction feeding performance than pierce feeding, indicating that suction feeding is a behaviorally flexible strategy. Bearded seals were the only species for which there was strong correspondence between skull and dental morphology and feeding strategy, providing further support for their classification as suction feeding specialists. Harbor, ringed, and spotted seals have been classified as pierce feeders based on skull and dental morphologies. Our behavioral and kinematic analyses show that suction feeding is also an important feeding strategy for these species, indicating that skull morphology alone does not capture the true diversity of feeding behaviors used by pinnipeds. The ability of all four species to use more than one feeding strategy is likely advantageous for foraging in spatially and temporally dynamic marine ecosystems that favor opportunistic predators.

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