Seal Pups: Ferociously Cute and Worth Protecting

“It is, of course, important to maintain some academic separation from your study subject as a scientist,” says wildlife biologist and National Geographic grantee, Douglas Krause, although it doesn’t take him long to concede: “But there’s no getting around the fact that Antarctic fur seals are ridiculously cute. It’s exactly the same feeling that you would get walking down the street if an adorable Labrador puppy walked by—you can’t help yourself.”

Krause is in Cape Shirreff, Antarctica, working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations (NOAA) Fisheries’ Antarctic Marine Living Resources Program (AMLR). The NOAA team, led by wildlife biologist Mike Goebel, is dedicated to monitoring the health of fur seals, other Antarctic species, and the Cape Shirreff ecosystem as a whole. The data they collect can be used to help inform management of commercial fishing for sustainable resource exploitation in Antarctica.

One way Krause’s team tracks the health of fur seal pups is by weighing a hundred pups every 15 days throughout the summer. The measurements reveal whether or not the pups have enough food to eat. “If there were fewer krill for their mothers to forage for offshore, we might see a slower growth rate in the pups and we could pass that information on to the management bodies to essentially set regulations,” Krause says.

A curious fur seal pup inspects a camera in Cape Shirreff, Antarctica.
A curious fur seal pup inspects a camera in Cape Shirreff, Antarctica.

While Krause finds the pups undeniably adorable, he has no illusions about the fact that the pups are wild animals that need to be respected. “Our team has a lot of experience working with these animals in particular, and we have a lot of experience monitoring wild animals and wild animal behavior. We’re tracking every animal on the beach and we’re ready to react appropriately,” says Krause. Sometimes that reaction is as simple as letting fur seal pups chew on the scientists’ rubber boots—almost like teething puppies—so the animals have a quick and harmless outlet for their energy while the scientists work with them.

“At the end of the day, we’re down here studying animal behavior, so we’re really motivated at every stage along the way to minimize our impact on the animals. Both because it helps the data that we collect be more accurate, and also because we have a moral responsibility to not harm these animals.” Krause explains. “From the time that we actually grab a pup, weigh it and then release it, in an ideal situation that is at most a couple of minutes, and often it’s quicker than that.”

The pups can’t count on harmless encounters from some of the other species they encounter, though. Along with National Geographic, the NOAA team placed Crittercams on leopard seals. The footage revealed a grisly fate for many fur seal pups and captured behavior never before seen on video. Check out POV: Why Are Leopard Seals Eating So Many Fur Seal Pups?

(All research conducted pursuant to MMPA Permit #16472-03)

Changing Planet


Nora Rappaport is a producer and editor on National Geographic's Science and Exploration Media team. She produces content that highlights the awe-inspiring work of National Geographic explorers around the globe. When not working with her colleagues to inspire people to care about the planet, Nora can be found hanging out with any number of dogs.