Newborn seal pups vulnerable to climate change

By RTCC Staff

Newborn fur seal pups could be particularly vulnerable to climate change, according to a new study.

Published in the journal Physiological and Biochemical Zoology, the reseach warns that the first few months of life could become increasingly difficult for young pups as changing weather patterns hit their metabolic rates.

Young pups need to put most of their energy in these months into growing and learning – preparing for their lives without their mothers.

The researchers warn that as weather gets windier and wetter energy used for the pups growth will be transferred to help keep the pups warm (© Liam Quinn/Creative Commons)

With windier and wetter conditions predicted for the Antarctic, however, young seals could assign more energy to keeping warm, leaving less for their development, warn researchers.

The team of scientists gathered data from 48 young seals on Livington Island, just off the Antarctic Peninsula for their study – examining how much energy pups get from their mothers and how they used it.

“Energy budgets are important if we are to understand how individuals interact with their environment,” said report lead author, Dr Birgitte McDonald.

“In juvenile animals we need to know how they allocate energy towards growth, energy storage, maintenance including thermoregulation and development for foraging skills to facilitate a successful transition to independence.”

The team measured the pup’s milk energy intake, metabolic rate and growth rate over the first four months of their lives while completely dependant on their mothers’ milk.

The amount of milk the pups drink was the biggest predictor of their growth rates, the researchers found, followed by various other factors, including body size, general health and the weather.

They found as much as 60% of the milk energy goes to growth.

As pups get older, however, and are left alone this percentage falls and by one month they have just 25% of their energy available for growth.

“If climate change models are correct and the Antarctic Peninsula gets windier and wetter weather, this may influence how much energy is available for growth,” warned McDonald.

“Changes in prey availability and climate may lead pups to conserve energy by sacrificing the development of foraging skills or to wean at a lower mass or body condition, resulting in negative impacts on the ability to transition successfully to nutritional independence.”

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