The lives of seals: love, fun and survival

Posted on 10 March 2016 by

Christina Dixon

in the Animals in the wild blog

Understanding the natural behaviour of seals. ‘Love hormones’ and a mothers’ bond with their pups

I’m delighted to introduce a guest blog from our resident scientist, Gemma Carder, all about seals and how they live, love and play!

Like many mammals, mother seals have strong bonds with their pups. In order to keep their pups safe, grey seals stay close to their pups at all times. If they become separated, they know their pup will be in danger, and may even die from starvation, which is the main cause of grey seal pup mortality (Robinson et al., 2015). Research has shown that mothers with ‘higher’ levels of oxytocin, otherwise known as the ‘love’ hormone, stay closer to their pups, doing all they can to keep them safe (Robinson et al., 2015). 

For the first one to two weeks of harbour seal pup’s lives, they follow their mums very closely, riding on their backs (Wilson, 1974).  Both mothers and pups have glands which secrete an ‘attachment’ pheromone. This pheromone helps pups stay close to their mothers when swimming (Wilson and Kleiman,1974). Furthermore, mums and pups have unique calls which help them find each other, this has been observed in Antarctic fur seals (Aubin et al., 2015) and harbour seals (Sauvé et al., 2015).

Playing for fun and survival

There is no doubt that animals enjoy playing (Bekoff, 2001), and enjoyment is a strong motivator to play (Bekoff, 2001). Science supports this too, dopamine is a chemical messenger in the body and we know that dopamine is released when animals do something enjoyable (Bekoff, 2001). Scientists have shown that when animals play (including ourselves) levels of dopamine increase (Bekoff, 2001).

But as well as being fun, play also has important survival benefits too! (Bekoff, 2001; Held and Špinka 2011).

Play often occurs in young animals (Held and Špinka 2011). Playing helps youngsters train for later on in life, helping them develop essential survival skills (Held and Špinka 2011). All seal pups play. For example, fur seals play with each other and by themselves, both on land and in the water, a wonderful sight! (Harcourt, 1991). Play fighting and chasing helps pups increase strength and agility, and helps them learn how to find and identify prey later on in life (Arnold and Trillmich, 1984).

Playing is an essential activity for seals and why should they not have as much fun as us in and out of the water.

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Danger lurking beneath the waves

Due to the curiosity and playfulness of young seals, sadly quite often pups and juveniles become entangled in the huge amount of marine litter filling our oceans (Pemberton et al., 1992). A recent study found that over the course of 15 years, a horrifying 94% of Australian fur seals that were entangled were juveniles or pups (Lawson et al., 2015). 

Sadly, marine debris can have devastating impacts on seals and other marine animals. Many seals that become entangled endure life long suffering. Being entangled in material such as fishing nets can result in a range of problems and injuries for seals. They can suffer from deep wounds, leading to infection, flipper amputation and even death. Seals can even become smothered or chocked in marine litter, leading to starvation and even drowning (Lawson et al., 2015).

We believe seals and other marine animals deserve to live their lives, free from the increasing danger of marine debris. They should have the opportunity to raise their pups, socialise and play in a safe environment.

Help us ensure their protection by taking action today and joining our Sea Change campaign.

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