Blog post by Julia Sutherland
After the cancellation of last year’s fieldwork, it is a genuine delight to finally be on the ground in Shetland conducting the first field season of my PhD. Despite a lack of killer whales, myself and Matt have been hard at work, and it is fair to say Summer 2021 fieldwork is well underway.
The ECOPredS project, and my PhD, focuses on predator-prey interactions of seals and killer whales. This can include consumptive interactions (killer whales predating seals) but also non-consumptive interactions (e.g. seals changing their behaviour to avoid predation). To understand the consumptive and non-consumptive impacts of killer whales on seal species, it is important to understand how seals behave in the absence of killer whales as well as their presence. So, whilst we are waiting in anticipation for the whales to appear, their absence has provided a useful opportunity to collect baseline data on the two seal species around coastal Shetland.
The first week has proved eventful from a seal point of view. Harbour seal pupping season has started, and with each new day, new pups are appearing around the coastline of Shetland. Matt and I are monitoring sites all around Shetland, collecting data on the species and number of seals hauling out in different areas and habitats. Some sites appear exclusively harbour seal, whilst others have a mix of harbour and grey seals. Taking note of where we are seeing seals now will help us understand whether they change their haul out behaviour once the killer whales are back in the area. This fine-scale data we’re collecting, along with citizen science contributions, will also help us monitor how the two species use sites at different times of the year, and what this means for ‘prey availability’ to killer whales.
For now, we will continue to scour the coastline of Shetland, counting seals as we go, and waiting patiently for the killer whales to return as they always do.
To keep up to date with project information please be sure to follow our facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ecopreds and I will be posting photos of our wildlife encounters on my Instagram https://www.instagram.com/jujuwildlife/
All the best from Shetland!