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Behavioral responses of leopard seals to human activity on the New Zealand coast
  • Giverny Forbes,
  • Elisabeth Slooten
Giverny Forbes
University of Otago Department of Zoology

Corresponding Author:[email protected]

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Elisabeth Slooten
University of Otago Department of Zoology
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Abstract

Leopard seals are encountered by people hundreds of times a year along New Zealand’s coastline. They likely utilize New Zealand’s coastline for rest and recuperation. Human activity could disturb leopard seals’ rest and their subsequent responses could endanger human safety. This research aimed to determine whether leopard seals changed their behavior in response to human activity and whether these responses endangered human safety. This research utilized video recordings of twenty-nine individuals hauled out on the Otago coastline in New Zealand. The behavior of leopard seals under control conditions was compared to that expressed when people and/or dogs were present, and natural stimuli such as rain. Leopard seals rested for most of their time budget under all conditions but did so significantly less under the natural stimuli conditions compared to control conditions (p = <0.001, p = <0.001). Leopard seals lifted their heads significantly more when dogs and/or people were present (p = 0.003, p = 0.02) than under the control condition. They also moved significantly more when being measured (p = 0.041) than was observed under the control condition. Leopard seals did not express any behavior which could threaten the safety of a person or dog during this study. These results suggest that leopard seals can be disturbed by human activity when hauled out on shore but are unlikely to endanger human safety. It is recommended that wildlife managers maintain an exclusion zone of 20 m to ensure the welfare of hauled out leopard seals and human safety. Further research is required to assess to what extent the observed disturbances impact the seals’ fitness and whether there is a cumulative impact.