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Gray Seal Pup

July 2, 2014

Starting July 2, gray seal pup Rona will be on exhibit! Read about her progress in the latest keeper update from Chelsea Grubb.

As Rona grows, are you seeing her personality develop?

Rona is a really amazing animal, and we are so lucky to be able to watch her develop physically, socially and mentally every day! She is an incredibly fast learner, playful and has a VERY healthy appetite!
Keepers equate her behavior to that of a typical two year old child. She is curious about anything new in her pool (including other seals) and seems to enjoy testing limits and boundaries. Occasionally, if she wants more fish, she will make a loud moaning sound at the keepers to let them know exactly what she wants, very much like a demanding child! She is always intrigued by what the adult seals are doing and constantly watches them.

What’s in her diet?

Rona is consuming 2.5 kilos (5.5 pounds) of a mixture of herring, mackerel, butterfish, capelin and squid. Our animal care, nutrition and animal health departments have worked seamlessly together to constantly evaluate her growth, weight gain and nutritional needs since birth, and will continue this throughout her lifetime. Rona weighs in at 67 kilos these days. That’s just shy of 150 pounds.

How is Rona’s training coming along?

Rona started her formal training program at about six weeks old, about three weeks after she was weaned onto fish. Keepers use a whistle to indicate when an animal has performed a behavior correctly, known as a “bridge.” That’s the first thing Rona learned.

To teach her the bridge, the keepers would blow a short blast on their whistle, and then offer her a fish immediately. This taught her that when she hears the whistle, fish is on its way!

Once she understood this concept, keepers first concentrated on teaching her manners. She learned to “target”, which means she touches her nose to a keeper’s closed fist until bridged. This is the most basic behavior a seal can learn, and is the foundation of almost all the behaviors that she will eventually have in her repertoire.

The seals at the National Zoo participate in their own health care voluntarily, which means being comfortable with keepers and vet staff touching them all over their bodies. Rona is in the process of learning how to accept tactile interaction from people, which will evolve into more complicated behaviors like voluntary ultrasounds, blood draws, nasal swabs, and radiographs, among other medical behaviors. She is also learning how to accept eye drops, as eye issues can be somewhat of a problem as seals age.

Having a seal move voluntarily around a space is critical to their management in zoos, so Rona is also trained to follow keepers, go to the water when asked, and stay on a “station” while keepers move around her.

Manners are important for a baby seal to learn, but having fun is also high on the priority list! She is learning to spin on land an in the water, vocalize, and will learn many other fun behaviors in the future, such as waving, grooming, porpoising and high fives.

In the last update, Rona was in the holding pool by herself and intros were taking place (through a mesh barrier). Who has she met thus far, and how do they get along?

Rona has met all the seals by spending a few weeks in the holding pools with them learning how to socialize appropriately (read: stay out of the adults’ way!). The keepers introduced her to one adult at a time so that she could figure out the personality of each individual. The adults mostly ignore Rona, and generally just let her know when she is in their space a bit too much. They do this by head darting, opening their mouths, vocalizing and flipper slapping. Rona figured out what all these behavioral cues mean very quickly and seems to respect, except when she is feeling a bit feisty!

Whenever she met a new seal, she would first lie on the deck of the pool, stick her face in the water and watch the adults swim. When she got brave enough, she would enter the pool and follow the adult as they swam, very careful to keeper her distance. Every now and then she would get too close, but again, the adults are really good at giving her fair warning. She has recently discovered that blowing forcefully out her nose is another form of communication between seals, and now does it frequently.

What enrichment do you give Rona?

Right now, the most enriching activity for her is interacting with the rest of the seal colony.

We’d like to give a special “thank you” to the folks who donated to the Enrichment Giving Tree as part of #ZooEnrichment week. Thanks to your generosity, Rona (and all the Zoo’s animals) have their pick of toys to play with! Her favorite toys are Frisbees, balls, buoys, and weighted toys among others.

When will she be on exhibit?

Having Rona under behavioral control is critical before moving her out into the exhibit. For that reason, and to introduce her to the other seals in a more controlled environment, she was kept in the off exhibit holding area. Now that she has met all the seals and is a wonderfully behaved baby seal, she is ready to have adventure in the exhibit pool!

I want to help gray seals! What can I do?

Visit the Zoo to learn more about gray seals and to see these beautiful creatures up close!

Your help can ensure the future of gray seals not only at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo but in the wider, wild world! Text NATZOO to the number 20222 via cell phone to donate $10 to our conservation fund.

March 26, 2014

This update was written by American Trail keeper Chelsea Grubb.

Where is the seal pup?

Gray Seal Pup floating in water

Our seal pup has an entire holding pool to herself behind-the-scenes of American trail! She is neighbors with her mom (Kara), grandmother (Selkie), and aunt (Kjya). Although they are separated from the pup by a mesh fence, they're able to see, smell, and interact with each other through this safety barrier.

Separating the pup from her mother is a way for us to mimic the social dynamics that happen in the wild. In their natural habitat, a mother gray seal will leave her pup once it is fully weaned—around 3 weeks of age.

What does she eat?

Her diet, which consists of herring and mackerel, has helped her pack on the pounds—all 120 of them! We are working with our Nutrition Department to create a diverse and nutritious menu for her healthy appetite. The adult gray seals typically receive herring, capelin, butterfish, and squid three to four times a day.

Gray Seal Pup eating a fish

What does she like to do for fun?

Our seal pup can spend hours playing with her toys! She seems to enjoy pushing the floating items (pool buoys, puzzle feeders, ring toys) along the surface of the water. She'll sink them with her nose and watch them fly up to the surface of the water! These toys give the pup an opportunity to use her natural abilities and behaviors in new and exciting ways. Zoo fans can get involved by purchasing a toy for our growing pup through the Enrichment Wish List.

Gray Seal Pup pushing a plastic floating ball with her hose in the water

Has the seal pup started training?

Yes! We've started training the pup. She's a fast learner! As you may know, our pup's grandmother, Selkie, is a true Navy Seal and was trained by the Naval Ocean Systems Center in San Diego to insert and remove equipment, use a screwdriver and turn a large wheel valve.

While our pup won't learn those skills per se, she's learning behaviors that will help her day-to-day interactions with her caregivers and family go smoothly.

Gray Seal Pup taking fish from keeper

Has the pup met the Zoo's other seals?

The pup is able to interact with some of the Zoo's seals through a mesh barrier. Our adult seals don't seem to mind the pup, though she is very interested in and curious about them! She watches her elders intently during their training sessions.

Before she has direct contact with the other seals, she must master "shifting"—moving from one enclosed area to another. If a situation arose where we needed to quickly separate the seals into smaller social groups, we could do so by asking them to shift.

When will the pup make her grand debut?

We're letting the animals determine their own timeline. As our pup gets the hang of shifting, we will arrange for the adults to meet the pup, one at a time, without a physical barrier. We watch these introductions closely to ensure it is a positive experience for everyone.

At first, these sessions will be brief. If all goes well, we will gradually increase the time that the pup has with the other seals. Ultimately, we want to ensure that her first exploration of the seal habitat is a safe and fun experience for our entire colony.

How do you know if an introduction is successful?

As animal keepers, we're trained to watch for behavioral indicators of social stress as well as social harmony. All of the adult seals in our exhibit have interacted with a pup at one time or another. Hopefully, these past interactions will work in our favor!

March 1, 2014

Our seal pup is growing by leaps and bounds! She has weaned herself from tube feedings and nursing and is now eating fish. Keepers feed her about 8 pounds of fish each day now.

She also has been separated from her mom Kara, which is normal. In the wild seal pups only spend a few weeks with their mothers. The pup now spends her time in her own holding pool next to her mother’s pool.

Her white lanugo coat has completely disappeared, another sign of her growth. She now has a silvery coat with many black spots, much like the adult seals.

Staff is working on a plan to introduce her to the other seals, but that process will be very gradual.

Pup growing and thriving

After a tough start, our new seal pup appears to be thriving and rapidly gaining weight! She now weighs 60 pounds; that's almost double her birth weight.

Gray seals generally nurse from their mothers for about 15 to 20 days. Our team of keepers and veterinarians continue to supplement nursing with six bottle feedings each day, but they hope in the next few weeks to start feeding her more fish and reduce the amount of formula she eats.

The pup is starting to lose her white coat, known as the lanugo coat. It is a fluffy white coat that gray seals are born with that insulates them until they pack on enough fat to keep them warm in the cold climate they live in. They molt their coats after roughly two weeks, around the time they start to wean. Then their permanent coloring starts showing.

First Pup Born at the Zoo in 23 Years

Keepers Hand Feeding Gray Seal Pup at Smithsonian's National Zoo

Animal keepers at the National Zoo have been hand feeding a female gray seal pup, born January 21, 2014, at 10:21 p.m., in the holding area of the seal exhibit on American Trail. Zoo keepers, veterinarians and nutritionists have been closely monitoring the pup and her mother, Kara. Within 48 hours of her birth, the animal care team began preparations to hand feed the pup as she was not gaining weight while nursing from her mother. Although Kara has successfully given birth and raised one pup before, Kara is not lactating enough to support the current pup without supplemental feedings from keepers and veterinarians.

“Our animal care team is always prepared to hand rear or hand feed an animal if they need to,” said Ed Bronikowski, senior curator at the Zoo. “In the first days of this pup’s life we did not see her gain as much weight as we would have expected. It is still a tenuous time, but the pup’s weight is now heading in the right direction. We celebrate every pound that she gains.”

Zoo keepers, veterinarians and nutritionists immediately collaborated on a plan to supplement the pup’s nutritional needs. Kara received a dose of the hormone oxytocin Jan. 22 in an attempt to stimulate lactation, but even after the dose the seal team could not be certain she was producing enough milk for the pup. By the early afternoon of Jan. 25, keepers and veterinarians mobilized and began tube feeding the pup. She is now tube fed six times each day with a special formula that mimics her mother’s milk. The rich formula is made of a milk replacer, fish oil, water and vitamin E. Yesterday, Jan. 30, keepers were able to hand feed the pup a small capelin fish in addition to the tube feedings.

The pup now weighs 44 pounds, which is up from her birth weight of approximately 35 pounds. In the wild, gray seals generally nurse from their mothers for about 15 to 21 days and gain a significant amount of weight during that time. The mortality rate for gray seal pups that have not been weaned in the wild varies widely between 5 and 20 percent; it can sometimes be as high as 30 percent.

Although she may not be fully lactating, Kara is nursing her pup and is an attentive mother. Between tube feedings, which only take about 10 minutes, Kara and her pup swim in the holding pool and nap on the beach. The pup will join the Zoo’s four adult gray seals and two harbor seals on exhibit in the spring.

The Zoo received a recommendation to breed Kara with the Zoo’s resident male gray seal Gunther. Kara is the oldest gray seal to give birth in a Zoo. The last pup born at the National Zoo was Kjya in 1990. Kjya, who also lives on American Trail, is Kara’s sister. Kara was born at the Zoo in 1983. Both seals are offspring of the Zoo’s elderly female gray seal Selkie.

Although once endangered, gray seals are now listed as a species of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In the wild, gray seals range from North America to the Baltic Sea.

To follow the Zoo’s progress in caring for the pup, check for news on the Zoo’s Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.