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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

August 3, 2011 at 2:30 PM

Born to be wild: Rehabbed and wild seal pups behave differently

Researchers who tagged 20 seal pups have discovered that wild seal pups captured, tagged and released behave very differently from seal pups tagged and released from a rehab facility.

“We were blown away,” said Joe Gaydos of the SeaDoc Society, a non-profit research and conservation society based on Orcas Island. “It was pretty dramatic, we were amazed to see that those guys don’t behave like wild seals.”


Seal pups tagged and released from a rehab facility high tail it into the water in the San Juans. The pups are wearing transmitters that enabled scientists to track their movements. Steve Ringman, photo

Analyzing data from transmitters glued to the animals’ backs, they discovered that the rehab pups traveled much farther every day than the wild seal pups.

“It is as if you had a group of people go out for a walk, and half of them go too far. Why?” Gaydos said. The researchers’ hypothesis is that the rehab seals missed out on three or four weeks of instruction from their mothers, in which they would have leaned how to hunt by watching her, even though they would have still been nursing.


Gluing a transmitter tag to a squirming seal pup is tricky business. Steve Ringman, photo

“We think it probably has to do with food, they are not finding something, so they keep going: ‘Nothing here, keep moving, nothing here, keep moving.’ ”

He said one seal went as far as the Oregon Coast, the longest documented journey by a seal pup. The SeaDoc Society has a map on their website of the seals’ travels, and it it shows quite an odyssey, indeed.

The scientists couldn’t tell from the tagging, however, if the rehabbed seals lived longer, or not as long, as the wild seals. It’s possible when transmitters went dark that they simply stopped, it doesn’t mean the animal died.

For that reason, researchers don’t know if the increased travel affected the animals’ survival. To learn more about the study, and its implications for federal spending on seal rehab, read my story in the Seattle Times.

Nonetheless, the study raises questions for private groups and the federal government that fund seal pup rescue efforts. “Do we want to keep doing this? Is it something we should be doing differently? They are not behaving like wild seals. It raises some questions we want to think about,” Gaydos said.

Ignacio Vilchis, who did the data analysis for the study, said seal rehab probably will remain popular. “Its so hard, when you see those cute fuzzy pups abandoned, you just want to help.”


A volunteer helps tag a young seal, using a towel to gently restrain and calm the pup.

Steve Ringman, photo

One upside of seal pup rescue, Vilchis said, is it puts the general public more in touch with nature, which, he hopes, could motivate people to help take care of the environment.

But the best thing to do, scientists agree, for a seal pup you encounter on the beach during the summer pupping season is to keep your distance, and leave it be. More than likely, its mother is just off shore fishing, and will be back for the pup. Rescuing it could do more harm than good.

To learn more about seal pups, enjoy wonderful photos of local seal pups, and brush up on your beach etiquette for the seal pupping season underway now through September, the Seal Sitters, a local seal pup protection group is a good resource.

And…for pure cute…check out their video of a seal mom and her newborn pup, on the Seal Sitter’s blog:



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