Thought Experiments

“The most extraordinary thing about trying to piece together the missing links … is that when you do find a missing link and put it in the story, you suddenly need all these other missing links to connect to the new discovery. The gaps and questions actually increase.”

~David Attenborough

x_MG_6283As we sat down, a year ago, to write up our note now published in Aquatic Mammals (1), describing the case of cannibalism observed on the Isle of May, we looked at the collection of evidence we’d gathered to put into the story: We’d witnessed and videoed the first confirmed case of grey seal cannibalism in the North Sea, and the only reported case for the species since similar observations in Canada in the early 1990s. (Check out the video here)

After examining the carcasses from this handful of observations, it was soon clear that these findings linked into another story, one which had begun almost 20 years earlier across the Atlantic. Our amazing colleagues at the Sea Mammal Research Unit and the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme have looked more closely into those findings, the results of which have recently been published (2) in PLoS ONE here.

These two publications however are not the end of the story. From the behavioural science perspective, as we wrote up our observations we soon found a tantalizing explosion of new questions waiting to be explored!

Speculation is generally omitted in scientific papers to ensure brevity, and to reduce over-reaching conclusions that are not backed by the evidence.

However, trying to find explanations for weird observations and having a curious mind is why many of us picked this career path!

So, even though it is summer break, and books have been exchanged for flip-flops and ice-cream at the seaside, we thought we’d take this week to exercise our brains by exploring a few of the unique observations of the cannibalism case, and to consider what types of behavioural and ecological hypotheses might grow from that one observation.

Spoiler alert: by the end of the week, we won’t have any answers–most likely as Sir. David said, we’ll probably generate even more questions! But that, is half the fun.


  1. Bishop, A. M., Onoufriou, J., Moss, S., Pomeroy, P. P., & Twiss, S. D. (2016). Cannibalism by a male grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) in the North Sea. Aquatic Mammals, 42(2), 137-143. 10.1578/ AM.42.2.2016.137
  2. Brownlow A, Onoufriou J, Bishop A, Davison N, Thompson D (2016) Corkscrew Seals: Grey Seal (Halichoerus grypus) Infanticide and Cannibalism May Indicate the Cause of Spiral Lacerations in Seals. PLoS ONE 11(6): e0156464. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0156464



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