You’ll have noticed in quite a few of the pictures of our study mothers and other seals that we put up on this blog, they often seem to get in a bit of bother with their neighbours! Protecting your pup from threats is one of the key roles of a mother grey seal, and one of the main threats is their neighbours. Female grey seals with pups seem to like to keep neighbours at a reasonable distance, at least a couple of adult body lengths away. The risk is that the pup may wander off a little and a neighbouring female might take exception to this, and bite the pup.
Whilst such bites are not necessarily that serious in themselves, often just little ‘nips’ (though some of the more aggressive mums do really go for it!), the problem often comes from subsequent infections of any such bites. Also, we often see pups scurry away from a neighbour’s nips, but not always in the right direction, back towards mum, but often into more trouble, with other neighbours! So, mums will try to keep themselves between their pup and neighbours, and try to keep a reasonable distance from their neighbours. But, if their pup wanders too close to a neighbour, or another seal moves too close, an aggressive interaction will often be sparked.
Mostly these interactions involve a lot of noise (wailing and moaning), and open mouth threats, and even lunging with their mouth open at each other. But when you observe these interactions closely, you will see that the mums’ whiskers extend forwards when they lunge, and the two combatants lunge but just narrowly miss making contact – it’s all threat and bluff, rather civilised really – at least mostly!
Sometimes, things get a little more intense though, with actual biting, and a lot of aggressive flippering, where mums use their fore flippers (equipped with long and sharp claws) to rapidly rake at each other.
The encounters tend to end when one or both mums have got their pup back somewhere they regard as safe.
Although a lot of our pictures show this kind of behaviour, individual mothers don’t actually spend that much time engaged in battles with their neighbours, its simply that such ‘action’ tends to make a more interesting photo than a seal resting, which is what they do most of the time! In fact, on average, mums only spend about 3 or 4% of their time fighting with other females.
Our formal definitions from our ethogram;
Open-mouth Threat (OMT) – Female will open mouth, sometimes baring teeth to a potential threat, often accompanied with a vocalization.
Bite/Lunge (BI) – Adult female will rapidly extend the neck towards a potential threat with an open gape. If no physical contact is made, this is considered to be a Lunge (Lu). If female makes contact with teeth to the potential threat and closes jaw, this is considered to be a Bite (Bi). The two are lumped due to the similarity in mechanics despite different outcomes.
Aggressive flippering (FA) – Female uses either fore-flipper to rapidly wave at a potential threat. Flipper can either make contact with threat or can flipper the air (no contact).
Fight (FI) – Female makes prolonged aggressive physical contact with another adult conspecific. Can include a rapid series of Bite/Lunge (Bi/Lu), Aggressive flippering (FA), and Open-mouth Threats (OMT) in succession and in various combination with little to no time between successive behaviours. These are lumped into one due to their rapid and potentially undiscernible nature during extended aggressive physical contact.