One of the key groups of behaviours that we are interested in with our studies is vigilance behaviours. These are important as they can tell us about how an individual perceives its immediate environment, and, to be rather anthropomorphic, how ‘worried’ an individual might be about whats going on around them!
The main way that grey seals exhibit vigilance while on the breeding colony is with what we call an ‘alert’ behaviour, which we also subdivide into subcategories depending on the positioning of the seal’s head. Formal definition;
Alert: Alert Head up (ALHU) – seal is stationary, not changing orientation or geographic position, with head up and eyes open. This is usually a transition from either a rest or an ALHD behaviour.
Alert Head scanning (ALHS) – seal is stationary in geographic position and orientation, but head is up, actively moving, panning and scanning head around beyond small movements, observing the surrounding looking at conspecifics, disturbance sources, etc. May execute a pup check during or at the end of the scan (which should be marked as PC).
Alert Head down (ALHD) – head down, but eyes open. Small movements of the head are allowed, but if movement is frequent and extends beyond a few degrees of movement, this should be classified as ALHS.
Essentially, this is where an individual is actively scanning its environment for potential, or actual threats to itself or its pup (if we are talking about mothers that is!). Threats typically include neighbouring seals, both females and males, that might pose a threat to the pup (often if a pup wanders too far from its mother and towards other adults, they run the risk of receiving a good few bites!). But, threats may also include marauding gulls (especially when the pup is new born), or, on some breeding colonies, people.
Our work focuses on how some mothers tend to spend more time being alert than others, and are consistently so – some mums are definitely more ‘reactive’ to what is going on around them than others, and it does not seem to be related to their age, experience, or size, or how far they are from their pup – it seems to be part of their ‘personality’, for want of a better word!