Animal Rescue Update: Harp Seal on Maryland Coast

national aquarium Animal Rescue Update

Our Animal Rescue team has been busy lately – besides caring for the 19 sea turtles we currently have in rehabilitation, we have been actively responding to seal sightings all along the Maryland coast. So far this season, we have seen mostly harbor seals visiting the area, but on Saturday, February 8, we had our first confirmed juvenile harp seal sighting of the season at the inlet of Ocean City, MD.

harp seal in ocean city

National Aquarium’s trained first-responders, along with seal steward volunteers from Maryland Coastal Bays Program (MCBP), monitored the condition of the animal, established a ‘safe viewing zone’ for the public and answered questions. Within 48 hours, volunteers with the Aquarium and MCBP interacted with nearly 600 people that stopped by to see and take pictures of the seal from the established safe zone. This harp seal was active, displaying normal seal behaviors and was in good body condition. A volunteer who was monitoring the animal witnessed the seal leaving the beach the afternoon of Monday, February 10.

Early on the morning of February 12th, our Animal Rescue team received a report from a private citizen about a seal sighting at Assateague Island National Seashore.

map of maryland shore

An Aquarium staff member responded to assess the health and condition of the animal, and it was quickly clear that this juvenile harp seal was not feeling well and in need of medical attention. Within two hours of the initial report of the sighting, Aquarium staff (with the help of the National Park Service) successfully determined the condition of the animal, secured a rehabilitation enclosure at the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, New Jersey, and began the transport process. Based on the condition of the animal, both teams surmised that this was a different seal than the individual that was sighted just days before in Ocean City.

Based on the symptoms (lethargy, depressed behavior, resting position) of the Assateague seal, it was suspected that the animal could have ingested sand, shells and possibly rocks – a behavior of harp seals that is well documented in scientific literature and an experience we have seen in admitted harp seal patients. It is unclear as to why juvenile harp seals ingest sand, rocks and shells, but they are the most common seal species to display this abnormal behavior. This ailment can cause impaction of the stomach and severe dehydration – conditions that can prove fatal, even if treated promptly.

stones from seal surgery

In 2004, our Animal Health team removed more than 1 lb. of rocks
from the stomach of a juvenile harp seal.

Despite the best efforts to treat the young harp seal found on Assateague, the animal’s condition deteriorated quickly and, unfortunately, it expired. After further evaluation, our teams were able to carefully compare photos of the harp seal from Ocean City on Feb 8 and the harp seal from Assateague on Feb 12. We have confirmed that it was the same seal at both locations.

We were initially shocked at this finding, as the seal’s health had greatly declined in a short amount of time. It is always difficult to accept when wildlife rehabilitation cases do not have a successful outcome, but it’s a vivid reality of the profession.

Wild animals are extremely adept at masking their illnesses in an effort to decrease their chances of becoming easy targets for prey, and can often times be much sicker than they outwardly appear. While it doesn’t happen often, we have experienced several situations in the last 22 years where seals quickly collapse from conditions such as respiratory distress, intestinal perforations and sepsis. While these cases can be difficult for staff, we use every opportunity to learn as much as we can from these animals – for the sake of the individual animal and the population as a whole.

In an effort to help us monitor seals in Maryland, please report any seal sightings to the Natural Resources Police Hotline at 1-800-628-9944 or Maryland Coastal Bays Program website.

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