Our research was recently featured on the BBC’s ‘The One Show’ (Tuesday 26th February, 2013). Mike Dilger presented a piece about our studies into individual variation in ‘mothering styles’ in female grey seals. Mike interviewed Sean and Paddy on the Isle of May, and had a go with ‘Rocky’ – our remotely controlled vehicle, which we use to approach the seals carefully, and expose the seals to a standardised sound stimulus (a wolf call). The idea is to monitor the responses of individual mothers to this wolf call, and we find that mothers vary dramatically in their responses. The key behaviour we are interested in is the ‘pup-check’ behaviour, which is where mothers raise their head up and make a definite, directed look towards their pup in order to check that the pup is still OK.
Some mothers respond to the wolf call by performing a lot of pup checks, whereas others do very few, or none at all. What is intriguing is that this individual variation is consistent over time, both within a single breeding season, and across successive years. When we repeat this test on the same seals, we find that those who did the most pup-checking in the first test, continue to do so, and those that did little or no pup-checking remain fairly ‘relaxed’ about the whole thing. So, these behavioural differences between our known mothers are consistent over time, something, arguably akin to individual ‘personalities’ in terms of how attentive, or not, they are towards their pup.
Our research is now trying to find out why seals should have such different ‘personalities’, and how such behavioural variation among individuals is maintained within natural populations, for example, do different ‘personality’ types have advantages in different situations, do they constitute differing approaches to life, but with relatively equal success? This seems likely, because if one type of personality was better than others in terms of raising pups successfully, then natural selection would favour this personality type over others. Therefore, each personality type must have its ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ – and that is what we are trying to find out!
The BBC One Show episode can still be seen (until 5th March 2013) via the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01r09h3