Week 3: Let’s Bother Some Seals!

Mar 05, 2019

Thursday was the first day of doing behavioral trials with Rachel for my project. Our goal was to do two target adult female seals, which we did. We had a car, a controller, and video goggles to receive live video (transmitted from the GoPro attached to the car’s hood). Right at the start, we forgot the transmitting antenna for the car back at the lab, so we couldn’t drive it until we went all the way back and forth from the lab. But when we got back, we found the target seal right away, and began setting up. Once we had the car positioned to drive into the area of the seal’s head, we moved away, behind a small sandstone outcropping. We had previously positioned a secondary camera on a small grassy hill facing the seal, and started recording on that camera, too. Once everything was ready, I connected the video goggles and began helping Rachel drive the car into position (I was the camera guy, making sure the seal was in frame and all her behaviors could be easily seen).

The plan was to record the first approach of the car, then wait five minutes for the seal to acclimate to the car’s presence, then play a noise three times, wait two minutes, play it again, wait two minutes, and play it a third time. We would record all the reactions. Then we’d drive the car a bit closer and record the seal’s reaction to that. The first trial was a bit funky because there was a very aggressive seal right next to the target one. We had set the car on what was basically a small dirt trail facing the target female, but the aggressive one flopped over to the car, began yelling at it, pushing it with her nose, and mock-biting it. Then when she’d finished harassing the car, she laid down blocking the entire trail, making us walk all the way back and move the car to a different position. During the trials, she was aggressive to the original approach of the car, then got scared and ran away after the first noise.

The second seal went well, without a hitch. What I did see was that the two seals that we tested had different reactions. One of them (the first one) seemed to be very aggressive initially, then indifferent, suggesting to me that it was very proactive to what it originally deemed as a threat, then once it was recognized as not a threat, it didn’t care. The second seal seemed to be confused by the car’s approach, sniffing it, then being scared by the noises and backed away. There were noticeably different reactions between the seals. The pups were really funny, though, because they didn’t care at all about the car nor the noises. It was honestly really funny. They only cared about their mother flopping away, and they started calling out and doing this hilarious flop towards her.

The second day of doing behavioral trials, Friday, we didn’t forget the antenna, and were able to get out to the beach right away. We found our first target female (again 1 out of 2), and set up, only to have a male flop in and directly block our camera’s view of the car and the target female. He didn’t care about us, but he cared about ruining our day, so we moved, then of course he moved and we could’ve stayed where we were. But other than that, the first trial went nicely, with the female immediately being scared by the car and the noises.

After that, we went to begin tagging weanlings. We didn’t restrain them to weight them or anything, but rather just tagged them. When we do weaner weighing, we target seals with one flipper tag. Rachel and I were putting that first tag on weaners with known mothers, to direct the researchers who would weight them. It was quite an experience, because the weaners didn’t particularly like having a spike driven through their flippers, and they didn’t like sitting still for the process (who would’ve thought?!), so I had to restrain them for Rachel to stick the tag in. But weaners aren’t very happy to have their back flippers grabbed and pulled apart, and those little guys are strong. Like ridiculously strong. They weigh maybe twice as much as me (that’s a lot), and they’re stronger, so I needed to hold on for dear life, and hope it worked out. It did (mostly).

A good image to picture how strong elephant seals are is an adult male elephant seal fighting. Imagine laying on your stomach, then raising the entire top of your body (maybe like stomach and above) off the ground without any support. Then imagine that you weigh 8,000 pounds. Elephant seals are ripped. I mean, they’re covered in blubber, but their lower backs are insane. I was reading a paper that compared relative weights of muscles in seals, and elephant seals have stronger backs than any other large seal species (like leopard seals). They might look like floppy blobs, but trust me, they aren’t. The second trial went well without a hitch. I found out that Rachel is really good at driving the RC car backwards at high speeds, but not so much at going forward (don’t ask me to explain).

4 Replies to “Week 3: Let’s Bother Some Seals!”

  1. Ivana B says:

    Can you post a video of seals?

  2. Abby W. says:

    i amliterally the aggressive one

  3. Serina K. says:

    We found a TARGET SEAL.

  4. Serina K. says:

    Also please post a video or some photos of the seals!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.