Working with 1-week-old Seal Pups

If you had told me five years ago that I would be putting 100-pound baby seals into a duffel bag in -20°F (-29°C) weather while wearing 20 pounds of gear, I would have been intrigued but very confused. Now, it’s something I look forward to every day. After 6 days of intense but amazing work, we have completed all sampling for our 1-week time point. We have worked on 8 pups, and our team has become a well-oiled, seal-wrangling machine.

For every procedure we do, there are two major components: our study on the pups and monitoring the mom. The first step of every procedure requires us to quickly and gently separate the pup from its mom. We did this using large pieces of plywood – our seal herding boards – to get in between the pup and his or her mom. These seals have no land predators and are very docile towards humans, so generally the mom moved away from us and was more curious than aggressive. When the mom was safely moved nearby, the other team members rolled the pup into a large duffel bag and carried the pup to a sled. This method of capture is quick and safe for us and for the pup. We used the sled to transport the pup over to our work site, where the rest of our procedure could begin. Two people from the team monitored the mom of each pup for the duration of the procedure, to ensure she remained in the area and didn’t go for a swim or try to bother other mom-pup pairs. “Mom watch” involved blocking the mom’s path to any breathing holes or cracks, using our herding boards. Mostly, we got to watch mom sleeping and pooping.

With mom under watchful eyes, our fearless vet Sophie and the other team members could begin work on our pup. These pups are pretty adorable, but they are still wild animals with sharp baby teeth, so we had to use caution when handling them. For some procedures, Sophie sedated the animals so we could draw blood and take a biopsy for later analysis. These measurements will help us understand how the seal pups prepare their bodies for diving. In other procedures, we placed the pup into a large metabolic chamber to measure their oxygen consumption – how much oxygen they were taking from the air – while they were resting (or as close to resting as a baby seal in a box could get). These measurements will later be used to approximate each pup’s metabolic rate. We kept our handling times as short as possible, and for each pup we were able to get everything done in about two hours or less. As soon as we were done, we took the pup right back to its mom and watched the pair for at least half an hour to make sure they were bonded and back to normal. The pairs reunited with each other every time, and we have been checking in on them regularly. Our pups are starting to explore their environment a bit more, and we’re excited to see how much they will have grown up by our next time point, when they are 3 weeks old. By then, they will be learning to swim!

Written by: Emma Weitzner

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Heather Liwanag