Psychologists and seal behavior researchers Dr. Kristy Biolsi and Dr. Kevin Woo have been observing seals and collecting scientific data on this winter’s Winter Seals and Waterbirds of NY Harbor Ecocruises. With just two cruises to go, they report here on their work over the past few months:
As we wind down for another season on the water with the NYC Audubon and New York Water Taxi, we’re happy to report a number of harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) sightings in the lower Hudson. We have seen seals either in the water near Hoffman and Swinburne Islands, or hauled out on Swinburne Island in particular. On February 9th, we observed the most seals ever recorded during our two winters of observations: 15 seals hauled out on Swinburne Island and 16 seals in the water.
As we’ve counted seals during the last two seasons with the NYC Audubon Ecocruises, it has helped us to develop better observation protocols for future excursions. One of our main goals is to identify individuals that may use specific haul-out sights in New York City, both during the season as well as annually. We will use our photos to help identify individuals and their relative locations, and hope to match this trend year after year. To do so, we will apply a matrix to look at the recognition of particular features on each seal, such as their face and coat. This process is similar to facial recognition technology used by the United States TSA, as well as social science researchers interested in human emotion and attraction (see work by Burke & Sulikowski, 2010, ‘A new viewpoint on the evolution of sexually dimorphic human faces’ in Evolutionary Psychology). If we find that specific individuals are using preferred haul-out locations, and are returning to New York City every year, this will provide us with a promising trend in demographic numbers. Moreover, as we previously considered, this trend may have something to do with a larger ecological picture, and hence healthy seal numbers in New York City may be a bioindicator of marine ecosystem health.
There are only two more cruises left, on March 2nd, and March 9th, and we’ll be back on the boat to conduct the last of our field surveys for the season. We hope to see you onboard, and next winter, too!
There are only two cruises left, on Sundays, March 2 and 9! Click here to register for one of our remaining Winter Seals and Waterbirds of NY Harbor Ecocruises.