Behaviour of the day…Mum-pup interactions.

We’ve spent a bit of time over the last field season discussing our ethogram and the various behaviours that we observe in our study individuals through our behaviour of the day blogs. While we’ve explored some of the details and implications of aggression, vigilance, and resting in adult females, we haven’t yet taken the time to delve into the intimate relationships between mom and pup during their 18-day lactation period.

While our current efforts do not directly focus on the behaviour of pups, females will invest varying degrees of time checking on and looking after their pups as can be seen by the often used measure of maternal attentiveness, what we call the pup-check. Often, these are executed at some distance away from their pup. But what about the behaviours that they display when they interact?


When a mother is not actively nursing or presenting to her pup to nurse, we categorize three main behaviour categories. First, the formal definitions from our ethogram:

Nose pup (NOP) – directed head movement toward direction of pup where nose comes into contact with her pup. Behaviour can include head movement in line with pup to maintain contact.

Flippering Pup (FP) – female using fore-flipper to lightly stroke/scratch pup. Often precedes nursing event but may also be used to encourage movement while female is attempting either non-aggressive locomotion or in an aggressive interaction context.

Mother-pup interaction, other (MP) – Any other active interaction between female and her pup where female is in direct physical contact not defined by other specific behaviours. This can include play-like behaviours like light biting, weak open-mouth threats to pup, climbing on pup, placing a flipper on pup that are executed in combination. There is no separate category for play.

Other than keeping tabs on your pup by regularly checking where it was left, we often observe females regularly sniffing or nosing their pup. It is thought that females may be able to recognize their pup based on each individual’s unique scent. In truth, one will sometimes see a female executing a ‘scratch-n-sniff’ -like behaviour in which they drag their claws through the dirt and tussock while pressing their noses to the ground in a similar manner to nosing a pup, especially around areas where their pup has spent a majority of its time. While few studies have been able to quantify this, it is clear from first glace that some females regularly use the scent of their pup to distinguish it from others, especially when a second pup has wandered into their little patch unnoticed.


One of our study females nosing her pup. (Photo:CR Shuert)

We often observe flippering in variety of contexts. Sometimes the mums appear to be using it to stimulate and groom her pup, which become especially obvious as a pup begins to shed its lanugo; a flurry of white fluff is often seen flying off in the wind as a mum passively strokes her pup.  Flippering is also seen quite often at the initiation of a nursing bout.  This is usually where a female is seen to be moving herself in position to direct her pup towards the nipple, while stroking her pup in an apparent encouragement to begin suckling. As they grow older, some pups appear to use this as an opportunity to begin a bit of play and mock fighting with their mum’s flippers, face, and vibrissae.


A soon-to-be weaned pup play fighting with its mum. (Photo: CR Shuert)

While we don’t have a specific category for play, other mother-pup interactions include behaviours that are similar to those described in our aggression categories, but with much less intensity. Females may often be seen mouthing, or weakly biting, at their pups, using their flippers to hold them down, or placing their bodies on top of the pup indicating play-like interactions. These behaviours often illicit a response from the pup in a similar manner that we see as they develop and begin to interrogate their environment more and more – sometimes they play fight with their mums, and other times with a rock or peculiar blade of grass.  In other contexts, these same behaviours can be much more forceful and seem to indicate the female’s intentions to attempt to move their pup away from danger or to a better location in the colony.


Its tough work looking after a pup! (Photo: CR Shuert)



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