A crabeater seal – a long way from home

Crabeater seals (Lobodon carcinophaga) might be one of the most abundant large mammals on the planet, but they rarely swim as far north as New Zealand. They are one of the characteristic animals of the pack ice zone that encircles Antarctica, hauling out on the floating ice to rest, breed, and to escape the attention of killer whales. Their name is a bit of a misnomer, as they specialise in feeding on shrimp-like krill, which they catch by straining mouthfuls of seawater through their bizarrely-cusped interlocking teeth.

Crabeater seal teeth. Te Papa specimen MM.000387. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Crabeater seal teeth. Te Papa specimen MM.000387. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Crabeater seals have been recorded from New Zealand shores on seven occasions, but the fact that most of these sightings have been adjacent to major centres (Wellington, Christchurch and Whanganui) suggests that more distant animals have been undetected, unrecognised, or unreported. The most recent reported sighting was at Kaikoura in 2011 – until now.

The crabeater seal at Island Bay, 25 March 2015. Image: Lauren Hansen, Department of Conservation

The crabeater seal at Island Bay, 25 March 2015. Image: Lauren Hansen, Department of Conservation

The Department of Conservation (DOC) received reports of an unusual seal ashore at Island Bay on 25 March. It returned to the sea, and was next seen the following day by the Avalon Bridge, up the Hutt River. It continued on up the river, with sightings opposite Taita Drive on 27 March, then at Manor Park over the weekend. It was inspected by DOC staff and a Wellington Zoo vet on 27 March who decided that although the animal was slightly emaciated, it was in no obvious sign of distress or external injury, and that no intervention was required.

The crabeater seal beside the Hutt River, 27 March 2015. Image: Anneke Mace, Department of Conservation

The crabeater seal beside the Hutt River, 27 March 2015. Image: Anneke Mace, Department of Conservation

The seal was reported dead on the afternoon of 31 March. It was lying on the edge of the Hutt River opposite Heretaunga Park, about 18 km from the sea. On delivery to Te Papa, the seal was determined to be a young male, just over 2 metres in length. It was in good condition externally, and so we will have to wait until it is prepared as a specimen before investigating possible causes of death.

David Moss (DOC) and Colin Miskelly (Te Papa) measuring the deceased crabeater seal. Image: Alan Tennyson, Te Papa

David Moss (DOC) and Colin Miskelly (Te Papa) measuring the deceased crabeater seal. Image: Alan Tennyson, Te Papa

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9 Responses

  1. Grant Timlin

    Interesting stuff Colin. But why 20 km up the Hutt River? Perhaps on its way to doss down for the winter in the Eastern Hutt hut. Cheers,

    Grant

    Reply
  2. Tim Lee

    Wow those teeth are beautiful, mother nature never ceases to amaze me.

    Reply
  3. Stefanie Rixecker

    So great to have natural history posts like this one. I didn’t know these creatures visited NZ shores, nor did I know they had such incredible teeth. They are works of art! Thank you for sharing this.

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Thanks very much for your comments Stefanie.

      I couldn’t write about crabeater seals without showing those teeth! The skull and mandible that I photographed were from New Zealand’s second recorded crabeater seal, that came ashore on Petone Beach, Wellington, in 1916.

      Regards
      Colin

  4. Noel Hyde

    Thanks for sharing your post Colin, I never knew anything about these animals and the fact they occassionally visit our shores, very interesting!

    Reply
  5. vera

    Amazing story! Beautiful teeth pattern!

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Thanks Alison, Anton and Vera for your comments. And in reply to a few other doubting emails, no, this was not an April Fool’s story!

      Colin

  6. Anton van Helden

    Nice one Colin, wonderful to see this animal. I am glad Te Papa chose to collect this specimen. There is a lovely photo in the Te Papa collection of a crabeater seal on Petone beach. I look forward to hearing any findings from the necropsy.

    Cheers, Anton

    Reply
  7. AlIson Barwick

    A new animal to me, Colin – fascinating. Those teeth are indeed bizarre.

    Reply

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