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July August 2008
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True Veterans

The Zoo's gray seals have a history of service.


by Cindy Han

About 35 years ago, a Naval researcher traveled to Iceland to look for seals. He arrived at a pool with seal pups in it, put on his rain suit, got on his belly, and approached them. Most of the seals stayed away, but a few came up to him. These curious pups were, he thought, more likely to cooperate with the training he had in mind. Two of those pups, just six months old at the time, were later to become the Smithsonian National Zoo’s gray seals (Halichoerus grypus).

The seals spent their early years at the Naval Oceans Systems Center in San Diego, California, training as true Navy seals. They were part of a top-secret program during the Cold War using marine mammals to perform underwater work. The Navy found that the animals could make much deeper dives than their human counterparts, and were more efficient and most effective than sending a vessel down to the ocean floor. The gray seals were taught how to retrieve items, insert and remove equipment, use a screwdriver, and even turn a large wheel valve. Eventually, seals were dropped from the training program, in part because they were not as consistent in their performance as other animals, such as California sea lions and bottlenose dolphins—which are still used today. One Navy trainer specifically remembers the Zoo’s female seal, Selkie, because of her distinctive behavior. He would take her by boat for an ocean training session. Sometimes she’d put her head in, enter the water, and practice her skills. Other times, she would pull her head back out of the water and stay put—which meant she wouldn’t cooperate, so he would simply give up
and head back to shore with her.

“That’s so Selkie,” says Linda Moore, a National Zoo biologist who has watched the gray seals grow up since the Navy donated them to the Zoo in 1979. She says Selkie still displays some of the skills she learned—she’s great at retrieving items in her pool—but she’s not always eager to please. “If sea lions are like dogs, then seals are more like cats,” says Moore. “They do their own thing.”

Selkie’s male companion, Gunnar, is a 500-pound “gentle giant” with a mellow nature, according to his keepers. Moore was surprised recently when Gunnar displayed his problemsolving abilities—perhaps instilled from his Navy days. When Moore was feeding Gunnar, one fish dropped to the bottom of the pool and disappeared under the drain grate. Moore showed Gunnar the empty fish bucket, which is how keepers indicate a feeding is over. She planned to then go flush the fallen fish out of the drain—but noticed Gunnar swimming toward the drain. “He took his front flipper and
began waving it rapidly over the grate. Suddenly the fish popped up out of the grate and Gunnar ate it! This was obviously something he had figured out how to do on his own, and it didn’t appear to be the first time he had done it.”

Selkie and Gunnar, gray seals

Selkie (right) and Gunnar (left), both aged 35, are considered senior seals. Over the years, Selkie has gradually lost her sight, but is otherwise in good health. Gray seals can live to their 40s in captivity. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

The Zoo’s two gray seals also find coins and other objects in their pool, which they retrieve and place on the pool’s edge for the keepers to find. “They have a way of surprising you,” says Moore.

Refreshing Pools

An exciting, interactive exhibit is in the works for the Zoo’s seals and sea lions. The upcoming renovation will feature both better habitat for the animals and better viewing for visitors to the Beaver Valley section of the Zoo. From rocky pools to underwater windows, the new exhibit will allow visitors to experience the natural setting of these ocean dwellers.
“Where the land meets the sea” is the theme of the new exhibit, which will improve the seals’ and sea lions’ surroundings and support systems. Visitors will also learn how their actions can aid the conservation of ecosystems on both land and sea.

 

Malia Somerville feeds Selkie and Gunnar
Seal keeper Malia Somerville feeds Selkie as Gunnar waits his turn. When a meal is over, the keeper indicates that the bucket is empty by tipping it or by tapping on the bottom. The seals know exactly what that means. (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

Baby Seal

During their many years together at the Zoo, Gunnar and
Selkie produced two pups, Kara and Kjya, who spent several years with them before they were moved to the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, New Jersey. Gray seals are not endangered, but the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is working on a population management plan to maintain a healthy genetic mix of the species.

Seal vs. Sea Lion

Gray seal vs. sea lion
Seal (left), sea lion (right) (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

Both seals and sea lions are pinnipeds (meaning “wing-” or “fin-footed”), and they share certain traits: They’re both marine mammals with four flippers, short fur, sensitive whiskers, and acute hearing. But they’re different in other ways. Seals move on land by crawling on their bellies or
rolling. Sea lions walk on their flippers. To swim, seals move their hind flippers from side to side, while sea lions propel themselves with their front flippers. Seals only have small ear holes, whereas sea lions have external ear flaps. At the National Zoo, daily demonstrations display how both gray seals and California sea lions have learned a variety of skills from their keepers.