Mother–pup vocal recognition in the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) of Sable Island, Nova Scotia, Canada



Parental recognition of offspring would be expected to evolve among densely populated species in which parental investment is large, and separations of the mother–pup pair are frequent. Although otariids present a well-developed system of mutual vocal recognition, evidence in phocids is weak. Furthermore, allo-suckling is prevalent in some species and may reflect confusion over the identity of pups. The vocalizations of grey seal Halichoerus grypus pups have been found to be stereotyped and individually distinctive on the Isle of May, Scotland. However, playback experiments showed that mothers fail to discriminate between the vocalizations of their pup and a non-filial pup. Moreover, widespread allo-suckling was observed. In contrast, grey seals on Sable Island, Nova Scotia, a population reproductively isolated from that of the Isle of May, show very little allo-suckling. This may reflect the presence of a recognition system that does not seem to be present on the Isle of May. During the 1999 breeding season on Sable Island, vocalizations of grey seal pups were recorded and playback experiments carried out to determine whether female grey seals respond differently to the playback of vocalizations of their own pup, a familiar pup and an unfamiliar pup. Grey seal mothers were found to make significantly more head turns and body movements towards the loudspeaker during the playback of their own pup call than during the playback of a familiar or unfamiliar pup call. In addition, there was no evidence of an effect of pup age. This suggests that female grey seals can discriminate between pup calls using the stereotyped and individually distinctive vocalizations of their pup, and that different selective pressures may be in operation between the Sable Island and Isle of May colonies.