We’ve already mentioned the ‘alert’ behaviour, which we see in mums, and males, and juveniles and even pups, but one specific form of vigilance behaviour that we are really interested in is the ‘Pup-check’. Formal definition;
Pup-Check (PC) – directed head movement where eyes are open and the seal moves its head and direction of gaze toward location of pup. This can be quick (~1-2 sec) or longer, but each look considered to be a separate pup check.
So, this is basically an ‘alert’ behaviour, but where the mum is clearly looking directly at her pup. Why she does this we don’t fully know – it may be to check on the proximity of the pup to her, or to check the pup is not close to any threat (e.g. a neighbouring female), or simply if the mum is startled by something else around her, her reaction includes checking on the pup. Or it may be all of these. What is important about this behaviour is that some mums tend to Pup-check quite often, while others do so rather less often. And these differences in maternal attentiveness seem to remain consistent, not just within a single breeding season, but also across breeding seasons (see our paper on individual differences in Pup-checking behaviour). These differences do not seem to be related to the mums age, or experience, or the pup’s behaviour (or even whether the pup is male or female), but seem to be differences due some intrinsic characteristic of the individual mums. So, the tendency to perform Pup-checks seems to be a useful measure of individual differences in maternal attentiveness,or, to be rather anthropomorphic about it, some mums seem to be more ‘concerned’ about their pups than others!
We also use this Pup-checking behaviour to look at how mums alter their maternal attentiveness when startled, or disturbed by events around them – and we have developed a rather fun field experimental approach to studying this – but more on that later!