Probing for Pinniped Personalities

An interesting direction that our research group has taken recently is the investigation of individual consistency in seal behaviour. It is clear from individual observations that, like humans, seals differ from one another in how they behave in a range of situations, and that individual seals are also consistent in their behaviour in a way that we might describe as “personality”. We can test for individual consistency in behaviour using a completely hands-off observational approach, but Sean has also developed an in-field experimental test that allows us to test for individuality within and between breeding seasons. This test comes in the form of “Rocky”, a remote control vehicle that delivers a novel stimulus to individuals so that we can see how they respond, and whether they are consistent in how they react.

On Tuesday, in a break from helping Amy to keep track of the males, Sean and I gave Rocky its first trial run at this study site, to see how the females responded. A large part of their response is an increase in the rate at which they check on their pups, though the mums vary relative to one another in how protective they are.  This variability in behaviour is similar to that seen at other sites, and the evidence suggests that it relates to other aspects of their mothering behaviour, as we can see that females often play with and feed their pups differently to one another. Whilst the females were generally protective of their pups (and one or two even tried to take a chunk out of Rocky!), the males fared less well, and the general reaction was to run away! All in all, after a successful trial this year it will be interesting to see how this approach progresses in the next field season.

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