Australian study into how seals react to boats prompts new ecotourism regulations

December 20, 2018

Unable to differentiate between a predator and a tourist boat carrying humans curious to view a colony of seals while resting in their natural habitat, pinnipeds are quick to react defensively as soon as they sense what they perceive as a potential life threat. The closer the vessel approaches, the more likely it is for the animals to rush into the sea in an attempt to escape and the greater the risk of injury and even death in the event of a stampede, or predation once they are in the water. In fact, just the act of remaining alert comes at potentially high energetic costs for the animals.

"Although the purpose of ecotourism is to give patrons the opportunity to observe animals in the wild engaging in typical behaviors, ecotourism-based human interactions may insteadalter pinniped behavior by initiating responses indicative of predation avoidance," explain the scientists.

"The periods fur seals spend ashore at colonies are particularly important for resting, evading predators, molting, breeding and rearing young. Fleeing behaviors in themselves expend energy, and time spent in the water as a result of flight responses can also be energetically costly," they add.

To provide recommendations for appropriately informed management guidelines, so that ecotourism does not clashes with the animals' welfare, the Australian research team of Julia Back and Prof John Arnould of Deakin University, Dr Andrew Hoskins, CSIRO, and Dr Roger Kirkwood, Phillip Island Nature Park, observed the response to approaching boats of a breeding colony of Australian fur seals on Kanowna Island in northern Bass Strait, southeastern Australia. Their study is published in the open-access journal Nature Conservation.

Whenever a seal detects a threat while onshore, they first change posture, watch the object and remain alert and vigilant until the danger is gone. In the field survey, such a response was triggered when the research boat approached the colony at a distance of 75 m. Interestingly, this reaction would be more pronounced in the morning (the researchers would normally visit the colony twice a day), while in the afternoon the seals would demonstrate a reduced response. Why this is so, remains unclear.

When there was only 25 m between the seals and the boat, the scientists observed many of the animals fleeing to the safety of the water. This kind of reaction is particularly dangerous for the seals and especially their young, as these animals tend to perceive risk based on the responses of the individuals around them. In such a cascading response, a large-scale stampede is likely to occur, where pups could easily get trampled to death or fall from cliffs.

"While the infrequency of these events suggests they are unlikely to have population-level effects, such disturbance impacts are in violation of state and federal regulations protecting marine mammals", note the authors, citing the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

As a result of the study, the management guidelines were updated, so that they currently restrict boat approaches to 100 m at Kanowna Island from March through October, when the rearing of the pups takes place. During the breeding period, vessels need to keep a distance of at least 200 m, as previously.

In conclusion, the authors also note that their findings are limited to a single colony and are therefore insufficient to make any generalisations about other species or even other Australian fur seal populations.
-end-
Original source:

Back JJ, Hoskins AJ, Kirkwood R, Arnould JPY (2018) Behavioral responses of Australian fur seals to boat approaches at a breeding colony. Nature Conservation 31: 35-52. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.31.26263

Pensoft Publishers

Related Breeding Articles from Brightsurf:

Novel haplotype-led approach to increase the precision of wheat breeding
Wheat researchers at the John Innes Centre are pioneering a new technique that promises to improve gene discovery for the globally important crop.

Climate-adapted plant breeding
Securing plant production is a global task. Using a combination of new molecular and statistical methods, a research team from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) was able to show that material from gene banks can be used to improve traits in the maize plant.

Shorebirds more likely to divorce after successful breeding
Research led by the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath found that a range of factors affected the fidelity and parenting behaviour of plovers, rather than being defined by the species.

Researchers help inform cassava breeding worldwide
Scientists in Cornell University's NextGen Cassava project have uncovered new details regarding cassava's genetic architecture that may help breeders more easily pinpoint traits for one of Africa's key crops.

Declining US plant breeding programs impacts food security
Decreasing access to funding, technology, and knowledge in U.S. plant breeding programs could negatively impact our future food security.

Gluten in wheat: What has changed during 120 years of breeding?
In recent years, the number of people affected by coeliac disease, wheat allergy or gluten or wheat sensitivity has risen sharply.

Decline in plant breeding programs could impact food security
A team of scientists led by Kate Evans, a Washington State University horticulture professor who leads WSU's pome fruit (apples and pears) breeding program, found that public plant breeding programs are seeing decreases in funding and personnel.

Research could save years of breeding for new Miscanthus hybrids
As climate change becomes increasingly difficult to ignore, scientists are working to diversify and improve alternatives to fossil-fuel-based energy.

Breeding new rice varieties will help farmers in Asia
New research shows enormous potential for developing improved short-duration rice varieties.

New software supports decision-making for breeding
Researchers at the University of Göttingen have developed an innovative software program for the simulation of breeding programmes.

Read More: Breeding News and Breeding Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.