By Joshua Rapp Learn
Icebreaker ships may be splitting endangered seal mothers from their pups at a critical point in their development.
“The route the icebreakers have to take crosses through the area where the seals are breeding,” says Simon Goodman at the University of Leeds, UK. Any disturbance that leads to the mothers separating from the pups is “bad news” for the baby seals.
Goodman and his colleagues gathered data from observers who travelled on 39 icebreaker trips from 2006 to 2013 in the northern Caspian Sea. This sea is a major oil and gas drilling site.
It is also the only home of the Caspian seals, which are found nowhere else. Caspian seal mothers give birth late in January on the open ice, and suckle their pups for about five weeks. The pups are born with white coats similar to ring seals, and are vulnerable while still dependent on their mothers for nutrition. The mothers often choose thick, solid ice, with features like ice folds to protect the pups from wind.
Goodman identified 81 occasions on which icebreakers came within 10 metres of a mother and pup. The mother typically fled and tried to take her pup with her, but sometimes left it behind. In one case, a mother temporarily abandoned a newborn pup. Because the icebreakers were moving, it was not always possible to tell what eventually happened. However, in at least two cases mother and pup ended up a long way apart, and may have lost each other.
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