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Grey seal personalities affect pups

Seal pup
Image caption Seal personalities affect how they mother their pups

Grey seals have different types of personality that affect the extent to which they guard and care for their young, according to new research.

Researchers from the universities of St Andrews and Durham found seal mothers were often unpredictable and adopted a wide variation of mothering styles.

Some were attentive to their pups while others were not, the experts found.

The study shows, for the first time, the extent of personality differences in marine mammals in the wild.

It shows how individual animals have differing behavioural styles, and how they may be limited in their ability to respond to different environments.

The researchers said the findings could have benefits for future conservation policy, habitat management and reveals new information about the process of evolution.

Researchers observed seals on the Scottish island of North Rona during the breeding season between September and November over a two-year period.

The team targeted the animals in their natural habitat to analyse individual variation and consistency in behavioural response.

Using a remote controlled vehicle with a fitted video camera, the researchers set up tests to assess how seals reacted to external stimuli and potential threats, including wolf calls played from the vehicle.

The seals' reactions ranged from disinterested to aggressive.

The team checked the responses of seal mothers by recording the number of pup checks made (where the mother raises her head off the ground and moves it in the direction of her young to check their well-being) during a specific time period.

Individual patterns on their fur meant the researchers could identify the seals over two years.

Inattentive mothers

Dr Sean Twiss, of Durham University, said: "Our findings show that there is no such thing as an average seal.

"Individuals behave differently and do so consistently.

"We found that some seal mothers are very watchful when something potentially threatening approaches them, while other mums barely check their pups at all.

"Why female grey seals express individually consistent patterns of pup checking is unknown.

"It might be expected that females should be able to change their behaviour according to the situation but the non-attentive mothers remained inattentive.

"Our results show large differences in response to the same potential dangers."

In both male and female seals, behaviour was not linked to factors such as age or size.

'Strong consistencies'

Dr Patrick Pomeroy of the Sea Mammal Research Unit, University of St Andrews, said: "Our results show strong consistencies in behaviour of wild seals.

"If maternal attentiveness contributes to fitness, one would be forced to ask why selection has not favoured a single optimum level of pup checking, or flexibility in terms of the number of checks made.

"Our next task is to find out if personality differences have fitness consequences."

The study is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Esmée Fairburn Foundation.

The first results are published in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

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