Marine predator populations are sensitive to temporal variation in prey availability, but prey dynamics are often difficult to quantify. Long-term measures of offspring growth is a useful performance attribute to gauge the potential demographic direction for such predator populations, especially where other metrics (e.g., population size estimates) are lacking. Subantarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus tropicalis) females are central place foragers during a protracted lactation period, and their foraging success determines the growth and vitality of their offspring. Using data spanning over 2 decades, we assessed geographic and temporal variation in growth rates and weaning mass of subantarctic fur seal pups at 2 of the species' principal populations (Gough and Marion islands) and identified environmental conditions that may, through assumed bottom-up mechanisms, affect body mass at weaning. While Marion Island pups grew at an average rate of between 0.040 and 0.067 kg/day early in lactation (comparable to conspecific growth at Amsterdam Island), the mean growth rate at Gough Island (approximately 0.030kg/day) was lower than the growth rate represented by the bottom 5% of the body mass distribution at Marion Island. Notwithstanding substantial interannual variability, we found support for a negative trend in weaning mass at both populations, suggesting a rise in limiting factors that is hypothesized to relate to concurrent local population size increases. Weaning mass tended to be higher when sea surface temperatures were warmer (with a stronger positive effect at Gough Island) and during positive phases of the Southern Oscillation Index (La Niña events), with a stronger positive effect in males. Given the low weaning mass of Gough Island fur seal pups, continued population growth here seems unlikely. While density-dependent regulation appears to have increased in strength at Marion Island, terminating rapid population growth, current weaning weights remain above the physiological limits of growth in subantarctic fur seals.
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Vol. 97 • No. 2