Seal Behaviour: A Scientific Exploration

The BBC’s Winterwatch show recently featured Dr. Sean Twiss, who has spent the last 30 years researching seal behavior. Here, Dr. Twiss of the Department of Biosciences expands on his most recent findings and explains why seals are just as unique as people.

Describe your seal-behavior research.

My research examines individual variations in seal behavior to advance our knowledge of why some seals are more successful than others. Our earlier research has demonstrated that seals exhibit distinctive behavioral patterns, and our present study uses heart rate monitoring to examine the physiological correlates of these behavioral variations.

Over the last five years, our study has monitored a colony of seals on the Isle of May, off the east coast of Scotland, during the mating season. Our research has concentrated on mother seals parenting their pups on shore.

We employed specially designed heart rate monitors to get insight into heart rate patterns and fluctuations while the seals were relaxed and when subjected to stress. The stressors were both artificial and natural, such as unwelcome closeness or attention from other seals. To test how different seals responded to the same stress trigger, we utilized a remote-controlled automobile to approach the seals and provide them with a minor auditory stressor (a wolf cry).

Findings of the Research:

Throughout our five-year study, we have observed that different seals regularly behave and respond in various ways, displaying characteristics like self-assurance, shyness, and reactivity,  connected to individual variances in their physiological reactions.

This goes against conventional thinking, which holds that natural selection should drive all people towards a single ideal form to solve the issues in the natural world we are studying. Seals show several answers to their problems rather than just one.

Additionally, we have discovered that seals’ behavioral reactions to stressful situations do not always match up with those of their bodies. We discovered that a seal’s heart rate might remain for a considerable time following a stressful incident, even though it might quickly revert to a resting behavioral state. Because seals must preserve energy, especially during the mating season when they must produce milk rich in fat for their pup, a higher heart rate still uses up additional energy. Assessing the effects of interactions between animals and humans, such as ecotourism, might benefit greatly from understanding these physiological and behavioral responses to stress.

Finally, we found that the physiological reactions of seals to anthropogenic (human-caused) disruptions were comparable to those of the animals to natural disturbances. Many people worry about how humans disrupt breeding colonies, but our research reminds us that life is stressful for all animals, even seals. Natural selection examines how people handle the daily pressures of living and procreating. Therefore, the question is not whether each seal can resist stress but whether such capacities can withstand the additional stress that human activities may provide.


The present research project is coming to an end. However, I would want to look into the chances to observe some of the seals individually when they are at sea to see how we could reflect their physiology and behavioral traits in their feeding strategies. For instance, consider if more courageous people go farther to get food.

I am particularly interested in applying parts of the research’s methodology to sheep populations in the North East of England to learn more about how sheep individuality influences grazing patterns.