Stealthy seals sneak past white sharks using subsurface structures

The following was shared with us by shark researcher Michelle Jewell…


Stealthy seals use subsurface structures to sneak by white sharks

Written by Michelle Jewell (@ExpatScientist)

Predators are highly influential in ecosystems because of the many top-down effects they can have. The most obvious and direct way predators influence an ecosystem is by eating and reducing the number of prey animals in the system, but another equally important way is the indirect influence they have on the behaviour of prey animals.

If you have avoided parking on a risky-looking street, taken a different route between classes to avoid a bully, or abandoned a forest hike because of snapping twigs in the distance, you have been indirectly affected by perceived ‘predators’. In the wild, prey animals will also change their behaviour when they perceive that predators are around, and these altered behaviours often influence other species, ultimately shaping the ecosystem.

My research has focused on these same principles of predator/prey interactions in the ocean, and a great place to study oceanic predators and their prey are Cape fur seal colonies in South Africa. Every summer (November), Cape fur seals give birth to thousands of pups, and by winter (April – September) these ‘young-of-the-year’ seals begin to venture off their islands to swim offshore to the fishing grounds with the adults. These young-of-the-years are typically slow, plump from months of a mostly fat milk diet, and – most importantly – naïve. White sharks take advantage of this naivety and aggregate around seal colonies every winter. Young-of-the-year pups are forced to learn how to avoid sharks quickly or suffer some rather permanent consequences. This means that during a full year, every seal colony goes through a period of high white shark presence (winter) and very low to no white shark presence (summer). Therefore, we are able to study how seals act ‘normally’ during the summer when there are no/very few sharks and how they change their behaviour in the winter to avoid white sharks.

Also, there are many different kinds of seal colony islands along the coast, which lets us ask more questions about how seals use their environment to avoid sharks. I conducted my study at the Dyer Island/Geyser Rock system, which is home to ‘Shark Alley’ as well as many shallow reefs, kelp forests, and shipwrecks. About 100km to the east is another seal colony called Seal Island, which is a world-famous spot to see white sharks predate on seals, but this island system lacks the abundant nearby structures/reefs/kelp forests that are present at Geyser Rock. By looking at these two different kinds of islands, we can also examine how structures – or ‘refugia’ – may alter how seals avoid white sharks at Geyser Rock from how seals avoid white sharks at Seal Island.


Research Conducted by Marine Dynamics a Shark Cage Diving Operator in Gansbaai South Africa

Do all of these structures and anti-predatory tactics of Cape fur seals change white shark movements around Geyser Rock? Most definitely! Check out that study and infographic!

For more information, check out the detailed scientific publication in Behavioral Ecology & Sociobiology.


Big thanks to Michelle for sharing her research and awesome infographic! For more from Michelle check out her Michelle’s Expat Scientist blog.

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