How young Weddell seals learn to swim | Polarjournal
A mother Weddell seal gives her offspring a break from swimming lessons in one of their breathing holes. Photo by Linnea Pearson, taken under the permits NMFS 21006-01 and ACA 2018-013 M#1.

The pups of most seal species are independent after weaning, without being taught anything by their mother. In the case of Weddell seals living in Antarctica, this is different – the pups swim with their mother for a few weeks and learn from her how to navigate under the ice before they start looking for food on their own.

They are cute, they are furry, and they start diving into frigid Antarctic waters at two weeks old. According to a new California Polytechnic State University study, Weddell seal pups may be one of the only types of seals to learn to swim from their mothers. The study, “Early Diving Behavior in Weddell Seal (Leptonychotes weddellii) Pups,” was published in early June in the Journal of Mammalogy.

Weddell seals are the southernmost born mammal and come into the world in the coldest environment of any mammal. These extreme conditions may explain the unusually long time they spend with their mothers.

It is not so easy for young Weddell seals to find their way under the ice. The most important lesson they need to learn is how to find the nearest breathing hole. Photo: BBC/From “Seven Worlds, One Planet”

According to the Seal Conservation Society, adult Weddell seal females are slightly longer than males and grow to nearly 3.3 meters long and weigh from 360 to 590 kilograms. Pups are born about 1.2 to 1.5 meters in length and weigh 22 to 30 kilograms.

In most seal species, pups nurse on land for up to four weeks and don’t go in the water until after they’re weaned. They must then learn to swim and forage by themselves. Weddell seal pups, on the other hand, stay with mom for six to seven weeks.

«Most seals don’t get to learn anything from mom, so we wanted to know what are the important lessons that they need in this extremely cold environment. We were also interested in understanding how adults become such incredible divers. Where do they start?»

Heather Liwanag, biology professor at California Polytechnic State University and co-author of the study

Adult Weddell seals are one of the champion divers of the pinniped world, able to hold their breath for up to 90 minutes. In comparison, a harbor seal can hold its breath for about half an hour.

Using tracking instruments, the research team measured how deep the pups dove and what time of day they were in the water. They compared this to what was known about when and how deep the mothers dive during this time.

The data showed that pups were in the water at the same time as mothers and so the moms were likely teaching the pups how to survive. But what, exactly, were they teaching? One possible lesson is foraging for food, but the pups weren’t diving to the depths needed to find prey.

Within the first week after birth, Weddell seal pups double their weight, and after about two weeks they begin to swim. Photo: Ewan Curtis

The more likely explanation is that mom is teaching her pup how to swim and navigate in the 28-degree Fahrenheit water. Because much of the swimming in Antarctica happens beneath a sheet of ice, one of the most important lessons may be how to find a breathing hole. The pups need to breathe every six minutes and on average held their breath for less than three minutes.

“One of the common causes of death in young Weddell seals is drowning,” Liwanag said. “It’s important that they learn how to find breathing holes in the ice that allow them to take frequent breaths, until they develop the ability to hold their breath for longer durations like the adults.”

Future research will focus on whether this teaching behavior explains variation in pups’ development. Scientists think Weddell seal behavior might also help them understand how climate change will affect ice-dependent seals at both poles.

Pressemitteilung der California Polytechnic State University, Heather Liwanag

Link zur Studie: Emma L Weitzner, Linnea E Pearson, Lars Tomanek, Heather E M Liwanag, Early diving behavior in Weddell seal (Leptonychotes weddellii) pups, Journal of Mammalogy, 2021;, gyab058, https://doi.org/10.1093/jmammal/gyab058

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