The seal pup development project began in the summer 2010. The study is being carried out on a voluntary basis in association with the Seal Conservation Society. The aim of the project is to try to understand and define 'well-being' in pups undergoinjg rehabilitation and the social and physical environments in which well-being may be maximised. The behaviour and body language of pups which we think indicates 'well-being' is already described in the section on pups' well-being under general care in rehab. However, these behavioural indices, and - conversely - behaviours and body language suggestive of stress or lack of well-being, may not be universally recognised.
The project is beginning with a quantitative assessment of the behavioural development of pups of the harbour seal (Phoca vitulina). This is being done by taking video of pups in the wild throughout the pupping season. Video clips are then analysed for the types of behaviour and the occurrence and duration of different behaviours. The same behaviours are recorded also in 'spot checks' taken at intervals by still photos. This quantitative description of pup development may then be used as a baseline for comparison with similar quantitative descriptions of the development of pups in rehabilitation in different conditions (i.e. pups kept alone/socially, with/without water, etc).
In addition to quantitative behaviour analysis, qualitative behaviour analysis (QBA) is also planned. For this, one-minute video clips are taken showing the body language of pups in different contexts (i.e. wild pups asleep on shore, following their mother on shore or in the water, playing at the water's edge; rehab pups asleep, active, interacting with companion pups, etc). These clips may then be interpreted in terms of their body language (e.g. relaxed, anxious, agitated, playful, depressed, etc) by a panel of behaviour experts, and the agreement between panel members assessed statistically.
The development of 'orphan' pups (i.e. pups stranded during the first few days after birth) at a rehabilitation centre other than Tara Seal Research was recorded for the first time in this project during the 2010 and 2011 pupping seasons. From the 2012 season we started to extend this study to other centres - to Natureland in Skegness and Mablethorpe in Lincolnshire . In 2012 we also made video and CCTV recordings of pups born in captivity at Natureland and at Esbjerg Aquarium in Denmark.
A 'Demand' study' is also in progress. For this, a pup is offered the opportunity to gain access to another seal, but must make a choice or overcome an obstacle in order to do so. In the case of 'orphan' pups, the obstacle would be appropriately small, such as a weighted door to push open. A feasibility study was carried out at Natureland and Mablethorpe in the summer of 2012 and a report will be attached below.
We are also looking into possibilities for non-invasive assaying of levels of oxytocin from blood (if samples are being taken routinely by the rehabilitation facility) and biomarkers of 'stress' from urine, saliva and faeces of pups kept in different conditions. We hope this may give an insight into the physiological well-being of pups, and could be correlated with different conditions of care which offer different social and physical environments. The biomarker study would be carried out in parallel with behaviour studies. In 2012 we began to collaborate with experts at Lincoln University (Riseholme laboratories) and colleagues at Friedrichskoog seal rehabilitation centre in Germany. In 2013 we hope also to be collaborating with experts at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna.
Eventually we hope to extend the study to other species commonly held in rehabilitation, such as the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) and the California sea lion (Zalophus californianus). Lessons learned may eventually help in rehabilitation and care of pups of endangered species such as monk seals.