Finding fathers: spatio-temporal analysis of paternity assignment in grey seals (Halichoerus grypus)


Sean Twiss, Fax: +44 (0)191 334 1201; E-mail:


Molecular studies of pinniped breeding systems exhibit a broad range of agreement and disagreement with observational indices of male breeding success. Grey seal studies have reported considerable discrepancies between genetic and behavioural paternity measures that have been interpreted as evidence of previously unidentified male strategies and/or tactics. Therefore, these studies have the power to fundamentally alter our perceptions of mating systems. However, other pinniped studies exhibit no such disagreements, and one possible explanation for disparities may be sampling biases in space and time. Therefore, it is essential that potential sampling biases are examined to evaluate the likelihood of previously unidentified male strategies. We examined paternities assigned at the North Rona grey seal colony between 1999 and 2002 in relation to concurrent detailed behavioural and locational data for males and females. We found that (i) for females observed in sexual interaction(s) during their oestrus period, it was highly probable that one of the interacting males fathered their next pup; (ii) over 80% of assigned paternities agreed with observations of the in-colony behaviour and spatio-temporal proximity of the males and females involved; and (iii) a minority of females exhibit mate choice and seek sires outside their local male's home range, although evidence suggests that these females mate on the colony rather than at sea. In conclusion, nearly all paternities assigned agreed with expectation based upon detailed knowledge of the spatio-temporal patterns of individuals during the breeding season. We found little evidence of unidentified male strategies at North Rona, Scotland, whereas further examination of mechanisms of female choice may be productive.