Comparing behaviors in wild and captive animals allows us to have additional insights to how we may best care for animals in zoo or aquarium environments. Specifically, an understanding of social behaviors is important to ensure that captive animals have opportunities to exhibit species-typical social interactions as if they were in the wild. I researched whether harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) social behavior in a zoo environment was comparable to harbor seal social behavior in natural settings. This species is an ideal candidate for this study because their social behavior is not entirely understood. I performed this research by comparing observational data collected by a team of divers in the Puget Sound in Washington, and observational data I collected from the captive harbor seals at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

Reagan Jennings

“Observational Comparison of Natural versus Captive Social Behaviors in Harbor Seals (Phoca vitulina) ”

General information about Phoca Vitulina and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), an aquatic mammal species apart of the pinnipedia order, can be found in a wide range of locations. Throughout the northern Atlantic coast, Pacific Ocean, Baltic Sea, and North Sea; this species has the widest habitation range of all the other pinnipeds. 

These seals can measure as long as six feet and have a mass of 290lbs. They primarily consume anchovies, herring, cod, and shrimp, but are generalist feeders that can prey on many different organisms. While they are predators harbor seals are also prey. Known predators include killer whales, great white sharks, and Greenland sharks. Their defense against these predators is to quickly escape, swimming at speeds up to 12mph and plunging depths as deep as 1640 feet. 

Columbus Zoo's newest region nearing completion - Delaware Gazette
Picture provided by the Delaware Gazette of harbor seal Keaton July 11, 2020

Although, thanks to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, four harbor seals and ten California sea lions are safe from predators in their newly built habitat. Adventure Cove opened on July 10th, 2020 and contains over 350,000 gallons of water. The harbor seals, Keaton (three-year-old male), Hillie (five-year-old female), Sloan (three-year-old female), and Farris (three-year-old female) came from SeaWorld Orlando where they had no training or significant human contact before arriving to Columbus. 

With three to four training sessions a day the Pinniped team is hoping to provide adequate enrichment to the new residents. Enrichment in zoo and aquarium settings are vital to captive animal health. Proper enrichment stimulates zoo animals to prevent boredom, and this results in the reflection of natural behaviors. My research focuses on the comparison of observed natural versus captive behaviors in harbor seals. The observational data collected from both settings will be compared to determine whether or not the harbor seals in Adventure Cove are receiving quality enrichment. 

Through my research I found that socially, harbor seals are solitary, independent creatures that rarely interact in either setting. There were many similarities in social behavior between the observed and captive seals which provides evidence the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is appropriately enriching the Adventure Cove residents.

As stated above, both the wild and captive harbor seals were very interested in people that entered their space. This was seen in the divers’ reports as well as in the interactions with guests at the zoo. The naturally curious and adventurous personality of the harbor seal was viewable in both settings. These behaviors are both represented in different ways, and we can assume that these behaviors are indicative of normal harbor seal behavior. There were also similarities in the way seals interacted with conspecifics. While divers never saw more than one wild seal, the captive seals also rarely interacted with each other. This lack of social interaction indicates that this species tends to behave in a solitary, antisocial manner.

Overall, this research provides an important insight to the comparable behaviors exhibited by both captive and wild animals, and how we can determine adequate care based off of these displayed behaviors. It appears the behaviors exhibited by the Adventure Cove harbor seals are indistinguishable from those exhibited by the wild seals. This evidence shows us that the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has provided the exceptional care necessary to mimic a natural, stimulating environment for the harbor seals to thrive in.