‘Crazy’ response to rapist seals

2014-11-24 00:00

CAPE TOWN — The ­behaviour of fur seals that sexually harass ­penguins on Marion Island is interesting, but for one of the researchers, people’s reaction to the news is even more so.

“The world went crazy!” said Dr Nico de Bruyn, of the Mammal Research ­Institute at the University of Pretoria, in reaction to all the queries he received since their research report on the topic appeared in the latest edition of Polar Biology.

Du Bruyn saw the strange behaviour of young Antarctic fur seals trying to mate with emperor ­penguins for the first time in 2006 when he was at Marion Island, and noted his observations in 2008.

Back then, his obser­vations elicited wide ­reaction, so he was partly ­prepared for the response to the ­latest article.

He said people even ask him why they did not do something to stop the seals.

“But this is just like a leopard catching a buck. It is how nature works. We cannot decide what is right or wrong. You only ­intervene if it is something you caused,” he said.

Since that first observation, three more “penguin rapes” by fur seals have been noted on the island, according to Du Bruyn and co-authors to the paper, William Haddad, Ryan Reisinger, Tristan Scott and professor Marthán Bester.

The last penguin victim did not survive the assault. The seal tried to mate with the bird and then ate it. The seals let the other two penguins go after having their way with them.

Neither of the authors know why the so-called penguin rapes happen. They do not think it is sexual frustration or because of mistaken identity on the seals’ part, but rather learnt behaviour.

Du Bruyn said it is ­possible that the young seals saw an older seal molest a penguin and then repeated the action when the circumstances ­presented themselves.

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