The Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s American Trail team is celebrating the arrival of a female gray seal pup, born Jan. 21 at 12:43 a.m. to mother Kara. Keepers are closely monitoring the pup, which appears to be nursing, moving and bonding well with mom. At 33 years old, Kara is the oldest gray seal to give birth in a Zoo. This pup is the third for Kara and 26-year-old father, Gunther.
Animal care staff are cautiously optimistic that the pup will thrive, and Kara is caring for her pup without interference. The pup weighed 37 pounds as of Jan. 24. Around three weeks of age, the pup will wean and shed her white lanugo coat, revealing a gray and mottled pattern similar to that of the adults. Once she is weaned, keepers will slowly introduce the new pup to the other members of the colony. She will join the Zoo’s adult gray seals and two harbor seals, Luke and Squeegee, on exhibit and public view in the spring.
Keepers suspected that Kara was pregnant based on her physical changes, appetite and weight gain, among other cues. They have trained the seals to voluntarily participate in radiographs and ultrasounds with veterinarians present as part of their routine medical care. An ultrasound in August confirmed Kara was pregnant, and animal care staff have been conducting bi-weekly ultrasounds to track the pup’s development. The Washington Post announced Kara’s pregnancy Dec. 13 through a broadcast via Facebook Live of her ultrasound. The Zoo will continue to provide updates on the gray seals through its Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.
The Zoo received a recommendation to breed Kara and Gunther from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan (SSP). An SSP matches individual animals across the country for breeding in order to maintain a healthy, genetically diverse and self-sustaining population. Zoo visitors can see Kjya, Luke and Squeegee daily at American Trail.
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.
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Photos: Jacqueline Conrad, Smithsonian’s National Zoo