January 14, 2014
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"Seal Cam" monitors birthing and behavior on Maine's Seal Island
Gray seal pupping season is underway on Maine’s Seal Island, and “Seal Cam” is once again capturing the colony’s activities via live streaming video. The camera was turned on in December at the start of the gray seal pupping season and has already captured the live birth of a baby seal, social behaviors between adults, and interactions with bald eagles on the island.
Seal cam, powered by solar panels, will be streaming live footage daily between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. through early February. The footage can be seen on explore.org's web site at http://explore.org/seals.
The seal cam site was officially launched January 8 with a live chat with Stephanie Wood, a Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) seal researcher. Wood and Gordon Waring, who heads the NEFSC seal research program, learned in late November that a remote video camera would be available again this year for research during gray seal pupping season on Seal Island. Wood will be conducting another live chat on January 14 between 1 and 2 p.m. EST on the explore.org web site.
Seal Island has the second largest gray seal pupping colony in the United States. The 65-acre uninhabited island is located in outer Penobscot Bay about 20 miles south of Rockland and is also home to large colonies of Atlantic puffins, Arctic terns, bald eagles, and other seabirds. The island is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and is managed by the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge in cooperation with the National Audubon Society. Muskeget Island, a small privately-owned island just northwest of Nantucket off the southeastern coast of Massachusetts, has the largest gray seal breeding and pupping colony in the U.S.
Steve Kress of the National Audubon Society’s Seabird Restoration Program and Project Puffin has worked with explore.org to set up a network of solar panels, microwave relays, high definition (HD) cameras, and internet and video technologies to monitor seabirds on Seal Island. Streaming video cameras monitor these birds during the spring and summer months. Kress approached NEFSC’s Waring and Wood in 2012 about using a streaming video camera for gray seal studies in the winter months when his seabird projects ended for the season, and they quickly agreed. While last season was a learning experience with the remote camera, Waring and Wood hope to take fuller advantage of the video equipment during this pupping season.
The video technology will be used to better understand gray seal ecology, especially during the winter months when aerial surveys and field work are limited. Video data will also be collected to develop a pup production model, something that does not exist for any U.S. gray seal population.
Researchers will be also looking for adult seals they have seen elsewhere - those that have been tagged or are uniquely marked and clearly identifiable, as this will provide additional information about seal movements and life history. Several marked seals have already been seen in camera footage. Waring served as chief scientist for Cape Cod’s first tagging and sampling effort on adult gray seals, conducted in June 2013 off Chatham, Massachusetts.
Wood and explore.org staff and volunteers can change the camera view remotely to capture specific data on seals or seal activities. Anyone can access the streaming video via mobile phones, tablets, or computers - fulfilling explore.org's goal of using technology to bring nature to people around the world. Live streaming video is available for four hours each day to conserve battery power.
"It's watching nature in action," Wood said. “As researchers, we are interested in learning when the first pups arrive, how long they keep their white coats, and how long they stay ashore after birth before heading off on their own.” She plans to use the camera to track the progression of the molting process at different stages during the pupping season.
Wood said the video will also provide information about behavior between mothers and pups, between adult seals, and between seals and the other island residents like bald eagles and other birds. "We should also get better estimates of the numbers of mothers and pups. We have single-day mother and pup counts from our aerial surveys, but we need a broader view of the population."
The seal cam will operate through early February, a period during which hundreds of seals could be born on the island. The mothers remain onshore with their pups for approximately three weeks after birth. Pups are quickly weaned and soon shed their white fur, or lanugo, then enter the water and learn to catch prey and live on their own.
Jason Damata, a spokesman for explore.org, said the live cameras are a modern portal to the natural world. “People everywhere can connect with nature and view video streams of the mating, birthing, pupping, and socializing behaviors of gray seals on their computers, tablets, and mobile phones. Using new technologies, viewers are able to ‘snap’ photos and catalog them as both memories of a moment spent observing nature, and as data that can help researchers understand migration, mating, and other seal and bald eagle behaviors.”
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