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Concept: Gray Seal


Microplastics are highly bioavailable to marine organisms, either through direct ingestion, or indirectly by trophic transfer from contaminated prey. The latter has been observed for low-trophic level organisms in laboratory conditions, yet empirical evidence in high trophic-level taxa is lacking. In natura studies face difficulties when dealing with contamination and differentiating between directly and indirectly ingested microplastics. The ethical constraints of subjecting large organisms, such as marine mammals, to laboratory investigations hinder the resolution of these limitations. Here, these issues were resolved by analysing sub-samples of scat from captive grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) and whole digestive tracts of the wild-caught Atlantic mackerel (Scomber scombrus) they are fed upon. An enzymatic digestion protocol was employed to remove excess organic material and facilitate visual detection of synthetic particles without damaging them. Polymer type was confirmed using Fourier-Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy. Extensive contamination control measures were implemented throughout. Approximately half of scat subsamples (48%; n = 15) and a third of fish (32%; n = 10) contained 1-4 microplastics. Particles were mainly black, clear, red and blue in colour. Mean lengths were 1.5 mm and 2 mm in scats and fish respectively. Ethylene propylene was the most frequently detected polymer type in both. Our findings suggest trophic transfer represents an indirect, yet potentially major, pathway of microplastic ingestion for any species whose feeding ecology involves the consumption of whole prey, including humans.

Concepts: Digestive system, Digestion, Apex predator, Pinniped, Gray Seal, Scombridae, Atlantic mackerel, Mackerel


Harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) stranding in large numbers around the southern North Sea with fatal, sharp-edged mutilations have spurred controversy among scientists, the fishing industry and conservationists, whose views about the likely cause differ. The recent detection of grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) DNA in bite marks on three mutilated harbour porpoises, as well as direct observations of grey seal attacks on porpoises, have identified this seal species as a probable cause. Bite mark characteristics were assessed in a retrospective analysis of photographs of dead harbour porpoises that stranded between 2003 and 2013 (n = 1081) on the Dutch coastline. There were 271 animals that were sufficiently fresh to allow macroscopic assessment of grey seal-associated wounds with certainty. In 25% of these, bite and claw marks were identified that were consistent with the marks found on animals that had tested positive for grey seal DNA. Affected animals were mostly healthy juveniles that had a thick blubber layer and had recently fed. We conclude that the majority of the mutilated harbour porpoises were victims of grey seal attacks and that predation by this species is one of the main causes of death in harbour porpoises in The Netherlands. We provide a decision tree that will help in the identification of future cases of grey seal predation on porpoises.

Concepts: Fish, Netherlands, Pinniped, Gray Seal, Massachusetts, Cetacea, Harbour porpoise, Porpoises


Young animals must learn to forage effectively to survive the transition from parental provisioning to independent feeding. Rapid development of successful foraging strategies is particularly important for capital breeders that do not receive parental guidance after weaning. The intrinsic and extrinsic drivers of variation in ontogeny of foraging are poorly understood for many species. Grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) are typical capital breeders; pups are abandoned on the natal site after a brief suckling phase, and must develop foraging skills without external input. We collected location and dive data from recently-weaned grey seal pups from two regions of the United Kingdom (the North Sea and the Celtic and Irish Seas) using animal-borne telemetry devices during their first months of independence at sea. Dive duration, depth, bottom time, and benthic diving increased over the first 40 days. The shape and magnitude of changes differed between regions. Females consistently had longer bottom times, and in the Celtic and Irish Seas they used shallower water than males. Regional sex differences suggest that extrinsic factors, such as water depth, contribute to behavioural sexual segregation. We recommend that conservation strategies consider movements of young naïve animals in addition to those of adults to account for developmental behavioural changes.

Concepts: Gender, United Kingdom, Sex, Motivation, Pinniped, Gray Seal, Massachusetts, Farne Islands


Anthropogenic noise can have negative effects on animal behaviour and physiology. However, noise is often introduced systematically and potentially provides information for navigation or prey detection. Here, we show that grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) learn to use sounds from acoustic fish tags as an indicator of food location. In 20 randomized trials each, 10 grey seals individually explored 20 foraging boxes, with one box containing a tagged fish, one containing an untagged fish and all other boxes being empty. The tagged box was found after significantly fewer non-tag box visits across trials, and seals revisited boxes containing the tag more often than any other box. The time and number of boxes needed to find both fish decreased significantly throughout consecutive trials. Two additional controls were conducted to investigate the role of the acoustic signal: (i) tags were placed in one box, with no fish present in any boxes and (ii) additional pieces of fish, inaccessible to the seal, were placed in the previously empty 18 boxes, making possible alternative chemosensory cues less reliable. During these controls, the acoustically tagged box was generally found significantly faster than the control box. Our results show that animals learn to use information provided by anthropogenic signals to enhance foraging success.

Concepts: Randomized controlled trial, Animal, Acoustics, Sound, Pinniped, Gray Seal, Massachusetts, Farne Islands


Estimating animal populations is critical for wildlife management. Aerial surveys are used for generating population estimates, but can be hampered by cost, logistical complexity, and human risk. Additionally, human counts of organisms in aerial imagery can be tedious and subjective. Automated approaches show promise, but can be constrained by long setup times and difficulty discriminating animals in aggregations. We combine unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), thermal imagery and computer vision to improve traditional wildlife survey methods. During spring 2015, we flew fixed-wing UAS equipped with thermal sensors, imaging two grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) breeding colonies in eastern Canada. Human analysts counted and classified individual seals in imagery manually. Concurrently, an automated classification and detection algorithm discriminated seals based upon temperature, size, and shape of thermal signatures. Automated counts were within 95-98% of human estimates; at Saddle Island, the model estimated 894 seals compared to analyst counts of 913, and at Hay Island estimated 2188 seals compared to analysts' 2311. The algorithm improves upon shortcomings of computer vision by effectively recognizing seals in aggregations while keeping model setup time minimal. Our study illustrates how UAS, thermal imagery, and automated detection can be combined to efficiently collect population data critical to wildlife management.

Concepts: Population, Pinniped, Gray Seal, Massachusetts, Fixed-wing aircraft, Unmanned aerial vehicle, Helicopter, Unmanned Aircraft System


Worldwide, stranded marine mammals and the network personnel who respond to marine mammal mortality have provided much of the information regarding marine morbillivirus infections. An assay to determine the amount of virus present in tissue samples would be useful to assist in routine surveying of animal health and for monitoring large-scale die-off events. False negatives from poor-quality samples prevent determination of the true extent of infection, while only small amounts of tissue samples or archived RNA may be available at the time of collection for future retrospective analysis. We developed a one-step duplex real-time reverse transcriptase-quantitative-PCR assay (RT-qPCR) based on Taqman probe technology to quantify phocine distemper virus (PDV) isolated from an outbreak in harbor (Phoca vitulina concolor) and gray seals (Halichoerus grypus) along the northeast US coast in 2006. The glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate-dehydrogenase (GAPDH) gene was selected to assess RNA quality. This duplex assay is specific for PDV and sensitive through a range of 10(0) to 10(9) copies ds-plasmid DNA. For the GAPDH target, the reaction in duplex amplified 10(0) to 10(9) copies of ds-plasmid DNA and was detectable in multiple seal species. This assay reduced the likelihood of false negative results due to degradation of tissues and well-to-well variability while providing sensitive and specific detection of PDV, which would be applicable in molecular epidemiologic studies and pathogen detection in field and laboratory investigations involving a variety of seal species.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Pinniped, Gray Seal, Mononegavirales, Marine mammals, Phocine distemper virus, Morbillivirus


Maternal behaviour is a crucial component of reproduction in all mammals; however the quality of care that mothers give to infants can vary greatly. It is vital to document variation in maternal behaviour caused by the physiological processes controlling its expression. This underlying physiology should be conserved throughout reproductive events and should be replicated across all individuals of a species; therefore, any correlates to maternal care quality may be present across many individuals or contexts. Oxytocin modulates the initiation and expression of maternal behaviour in mammals; therefore we tested whether maternal plasma oxytocin concentrations correlated to key maternal behaviours in wild grey seals (Halichoerus grypus). Plasma oxytocin concentrations in non-breeding individuals (4.3 ±0.5 pg/ml) were significantly lower than those in mothers with dependent pups in both early (8.2 ±0.8 pg/ml) and late (6.9 ±0.7 pg/ml) lactation. Maternal plasma oxytocin concentrations were not correlated to the amount of nursing prior to sampling, or a mother’s nursing intensity throughout the dependant period. Mothers with high plasma oxytocin concentrations stayed closer to their pups, reducing the likelihood of mother-pup separation during lactation which is credited with causing starvation, the largest cause of pup mortality in grey seals. This is the first study to link endogenous oxytocin concentrations in wild mammalian mothers with any type of maternal behaviour. Oxytocin’s structure and function is widely conserved across mammalian mothers, including humans. Defining the impact the oxytocin system has on maternal behaviour highlights relationships that may occur across many individuals or species, and such behaviours heavily influence infant development and an individual’s lifetime reproductive success.

Concepts: Infant, Human, Breastfeeding, Lactation, Mammal, Mother, Pinniped, Gray Seal


Large numbers of dead seals with characteristic spiral lesions have been washing ashore around the North Atlantic over the past two decades. Interactions with ship propellers and shark predation have been suggested as the likely causal mechanisms. However, new evidence points towards a more likely candidate: grey seal predation. An adult male grey seal was observed and recorded catching, killing and eating five weaned grey seal pups over a period of one week on the Isle of May, Scotland. A further 9 carcasses found in the same area exhibited similar injuries. Post mortem analysis of lesions indicated the wound characteristics were similar to each other and in 12 of the 14 carcasses analysed, were indistinguishable from carcasses previously attributed to propeller interaction. We therefore propose that most of the seal carcasses displaying spiral lacerations in the UK are caused by grey seal predation. Cases in other locations should be re-evaluated using the scoring system presented here to identify whether grey seal predation is a major cause of mortality in phocid seals.

Concepts: Causality, Death, Wound, Autopsy, Pinniped, Gray Seal, Massachusetts, Propeller


The use of small unoccupied aircraft systems (UAS) for ecological studies and wildlife population assessments is increasing. These methods can provide significant benefits in terms of costs and reductions in human risk, but little is known if UAS-based approaches cause disturbance of animals during operations. To address this knowledge gap, we conducted a series of UAS flights at gray seal breeding colonies on Hay and Saddle Islands in Nova Scotia, Canada. Using a small fixed-wing UAS, we assessed both immediate and short-term effects of surveys using sequential image analysis and between-flight seal counts in ten, 50 m2random quadrats at each colony. Counts of adult gray seals and young-of-the-year animals between first and second flights revealed no changes in abundance in quadrats (matched pairt-testp > 0.69) and slopes approaching 1 for linear regression comparisons (r2 > 0.80). Sequential image analysis revealed no changes in orientation or posture of imaged animals. We also assessed the acoustic properties of the small UAS in relation to low ambient noise conditions using sound equivalent level (Leq) measurements with a calibrated U-MIK 1 and a 1/3 octave band soundscape approach. The results of Leq measurements indicate that small fixed-wing UAS are quiet, with most energy above 160 Hz, and that levels across 1/3 octave bands do not greatly exceed ambient acoustic measurements in a quiet field during operations at standard survey altitudes. As such, this platform is unlikely to acoustically disturb gray seals at breeding colonies during population surveys. The results of the present study indicate that the effects of small fixed-wing UAS on gray seals at breeding colonies are negligible, and that fixed-wing UAS-based approaches should be considered amongst best practices for assessing gray seal colonies.

Concepts: Regression analysis, Acoustics, Pinniped, Gray Seal, Massachusetts, Ambient noise level, Flight, Aircraft


Developing methods to reduce the incidental catch of non-target species is important, as by-catch mortality poses threats especially to large aquatic predators. We examined the effectiveness of a novel device, a “seal sock”, in mitigating the by-catch mortality of seals in coastal fyke net fisheries in the Baltic Sea. The seal sock developed and tested in this study was a cylindrical net attached to the fyke net, allowing the seals access to the surface to breathe while trapped inside fishing gear. The number of dead and live seals caught in fyke nets without a seal sock (years 2008-2010) and with a sock (years 2011-2013) was recorded. The seals caught in fyke nets were mainly juveniles. Of ringed seals (Phoca hispida botnica) both sexes were equally represented, while of grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) the ratio was biased (71%) towards males. All the by-caught seals were dead in the fyke nets without a seal sock, whereas 70% of ringed seals and 11% of grey seals survived when the seal sock was used. The seal sock proved to be effective in reducing the by-catch mortality of ringed seals, but did not perform as well with grey seals.

Concepts: Baltic Sea, Sea, Pinniped, Gray Seal, Fishing, True seals, Farne Islands