Harbor seals practice social distancing to avoid disease

A group of marine researchers have made an intriguing discovery regarding the behavior of harbor seals and gray seals. Their study, recently published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, focused on seal behavior in the Dutch Wadden Sea and its potential connection to preventing the spread of diseases.

During the global pandemic, humans became familiar with the concept of social distancing to prevent disease transmission. Curious about whether oceanic creatures exhibit similar behavior, the scientists investigated seal behavior on the shores of the Dutch Wadden Sea—a region in the southeastern part of the North Sea.

The study zone featured two primary types of seals—harbor seals and gray seals. Aerial surveys revealed that gray seals tend to gather farther from the shore, while harbor seals prefer remaining closer to the water. Interestingly, harbor seals maintain approximately twice the distance between each other compared to gray seals.

Notably, harbor seals have suffered from phocine distemper outbreaks, experiencing two significant incidents in the past thirty years, leading to substantial declines in their population. On the other hand, gray seals, also susceptible to these infections, have been less severely affected, likely due to their ability to survive such illnesses.

The researchers propose that harbor seals might be employing a form of social distancing as a protective measure during outbreaks, which could explain their tendency to keep a greater distance between individuals. These findings hold potential implications for other marine creatures that exhibit similar behavior, especially considering the context of climate change. As ocean temperatures rise, the likelihood of contagious diseases spreading among marine species could increase.

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