, Volume 11, Issue 3, pp 203-215

Mother-pup separation and adoption in northern elephant seals

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Summary

The evolution of fostering behavior, parental care directed toward another's young, has been the focus of much recent interest. During a five-year study of northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) at Año Nuevo, California, we recorded the frequency of mother-pup separation, reunion, and adoption of orphaned pups in crowded and low-density breeding areas. While most females nursed their own pup exclusively until it was weaned, many females, especially young mothers (age 3–5 years), were unable to raise a pup successfully. In the crowded main breeding harem on Año Nuevo Island, 24 to 47 percent of the pups born each year were separated from their mothers from 1977 to 1980. Mother-pup separation and pup mortality were associated with the following inter-related factors: 1) female density; 2) weather and tidal conditions; 3) topographical features of the breeding areas (i.e., degree of exposure to high tides and surf); and 4) the proportion of young, maternally inexperienced females pupping in a particular area. Most motherpup separations were caused directly by 1) adult males moving through the harem; 2) pups wandering from their mothers; 3) female aggression; and 4) inclement weather. Most of the separations, as well as adoptions, occurred when pups were quite young. Mother-pup recognition appeared to be based on a combination of acoustic, visual, and olfactory cues, and most mother-pup reunions were effected by the female rather than her pup. On the main island breeding area, 572 orphans were marked. Of these, five percent relocated their mother, 27 percent were adopted or frequently cared for by foster mothers, and 68 percent were not adopted, or rarely fostered. The survival of an orphan was clearly contingent on the amount of care it received; most orphans which were not nursed or protected by females died before reaching 6 weeks of age. Frequently, an adopted orphan's foster mother was in the stage of lactation which corresponded closely to that of its own mother. The most common fostering event involved females that had lost their own pup and adopted a single orphan. Other pupless females attempted to steal a pup, cared for a pup while it was still with its mother, adopted a weaned pup, adopted two pups, or indiscriminately nursed any orphaned pup that approached. Some females kept their own pup in addition to fostering in alien pup. Most foster mothers were young and had little or no previous maternal experience. The formation of large, high-density breeding rookeries, due to a scarcity of suitable breeding sites, results in frequent mother-pup separations, especially during inclement weather and tidal conditions. Many opportunities for adoptive behavior are therefore presented, because of the great number of orphans and pupless females. Increased maternal experience appears to be a benefit associated with adoption. Some instances of fostering behavior may also be based on “reproductive errors” on the part of the foster mother.