Seals Adopt Flexible Parenting Style

First Posted: Nov 21, 2012 05:31 AM EST

Grey seals mothers adopt a very flexible parenting technique that gives their pups a real advantage.

Researchers from Durham University and the University of St Andrews observed the grey seal colonies in Scotland and found that some seal mothers were flexible in the parenting style they adopt and 'gamble' on the outcome of their actions, even as others play it safe and steady.

This is the first study that focuses on how personality variations in wild marine mammals persist rather than a single dominant style taking precedence.

The scientists observed seals on the Scottish island of North Rona during the breeding season over two years. The team observed seals in their natural habitat to analyse responses to unusual stimuli and to assess seal behavior at rest.

Through the study it is observed that a few seal mothers adopt a fixed approach when it comes to taking care of their pups. Their behavior doesn't alter according to local conditions in the breeding colony.

These mums tend to achieve average success in terms of their pups' weight gain so that, by-and-large, they generally do well. These mums seem to have a 'play it safe' approach to life.

At the same time some seal mothers pick a different approach. These mums are more flexible and try to adjust their mothering behavior according to the local conditions.  This method can be harmful when the conditions are unpredictable.

The study show that individual animals differ in their ability to accustom their behavior to  local environmental conditions and that large variations in behavioral strategies can persist within a species.

These results retain behavioral diversity within a species, potentially making the species more resilient to environmental change.

Lead author, Dr Sean Twiss, School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, said: "Some mums have a very fixed way of caring for their pups, come what may, whilst others are more flexible.

"Seals that 'gamble' and try to fit their behavior to their immediate surroundings can do very well, if they get it right! However, being flexible can be risky -- a mum might 'mis-judge' the conditions and fail to match her behaviour to the prevailing conditions."

"In either resting or disturbed situations, seal mums behaved in very individual ways, some showing high levels of maternal attentiveness, others showing low levels. Some behaved the same when disturbed as they did at rest while other individuals changed their behaviour dramatically when disturbed," she said

These differences in mothers' behaviour, either fixed or flexible, can have profound effects on their pups. 

After about two weeks of being looked after by their mothers, all pups are left to fend for themselves and have to teach themselves to feed.  It was seen that the fatter a mum leaves her pup, the more time the pup has to learn, and its chances of surviving are better.

Co-author Dr Paddy Pomeroy said: "What's really interesting about these short term tests is the way behavioral types map onto individual measures of reproductive success. If more flexible mothers are better and worse pup rearers, one of our next tasks will be to see how breeding successes and failures are apportioned over lifetimes, which can only be done in this type of study."

The findings were published in the journal IPLOS  ONE.

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