Kelp Gulls Tear Out Baby Seal Eyes So They Can Feast On Their Remains When They Die

By Christie Wilcox | August 17, 2015 10:40 am
A kelp gull waits for an unfortunate pup to die. Photo by Naude Dreyer

A kelp gull waits for an unfortunate pup to die. Photo by Naude Dreyer

I think it’s fairly safe to say that gulls are among the least-loved birds in the world. These loud and annoying seabirds have a disturbing lack of fear of large mammals — including us — and a seemingly insatiable appetite, as any beach picnicker can attest. It’s no wonder that the creators of Finding Nemo portrayed them as mindless feeding machines, the only species in the movie to lack intellect and personality. But they were wrong in at least one respect: while seagulls might be feeding machines, they are far from mindless.

“What most would consider a pain in the ass, I would consider it brilliant,” says Austin Gallagher, a scientist who generally studies large marine predators. “They can learn instantly and are fiercely competitive. Gulls are incredibly adaptive and intelligent birds. They are essentially the marine version of the crow, but with stronger wings to cope with coastal winds.”

Gallagher has seen firsthand just how smart these animals can be when it comes to obtaining their next meal: last summer when he was in Namibia, he and his colleagues observed a bizarre feeding behavior that can be best described as ruthless. “The beach where I was touring was riddled with seal carcasses, many with their eyes missing,” he recalls. “Knowing that gulls are considered to be very adaptive, I knew there would be a chance for this amazing natural history ethogram to contribute to the scientific literature.”

This baby seal doesn't stand a chance without its eyes — another meal for the birds. Photo by Naude Dreyer

This baby seal doesn’t stand a chance without its eyes — another meal for the birds. Photo by Naude Dreyer

Gallagher watched as kelp gulls (Larus dominicanus) snuck up on newborn or sleeping seal pups and quickly and viciously plucked out the animal’s eyes, which they greedily consumed if they succeeded. About half of the time, the gulls failed to complete their assault, either because the young seals fought them off or were saved by a more alert friend. The other half of the time, though, it took about two minutes for the birds to blind the unfortunate animals and gobble down their gooey prize.

Then the gulls would leave the seal the now-blinded baby or juvenile to die, returning to feast on its carcass.

No one has ever described this peeper-plucking behavior in gulls before, but kelp gulls are known for similar macabre feeding strategies. In Argentina, scientists observed the same species stripping flesh from the backs of southern right whales (Eubalena australis) when the obligate air-breathing marine mammals come up for a breath. The gulls are so persistent that the whales have changed how they surface to breathe just to avoid loosing chunks to the winged devils that descend from the sky. So gouging eyeballs seems quite in character for these aggressive  birds.

While their methods may seem cruel, the kelp gulls are actually demonstrating incredible adaptive ability and intelligence. “This is likely a learned behavior,” Gallagher says. “It is a specialized process that puts the birds at risk, and there is clearly a benefit for the birds.” He and his colleagues suggest the feeding strategy developed in response to an increase in seal numbers in the area and thus increased conflict for resources. Nearly 25 years prior, scientists saw trouble brewing between the seals and the gulls, but they predicted that the birds would be ousted by burgeoning seal colonies — they didn’t predict the kelp gulls’ smart survival strategy.

“These animals have learned to feed on large marine mammals around the world,” Gallagher notes. “To me that is super impressive.”

Right now, the population of kelp gulls in Namibia is the only colony known to feed in this manner, but it’s possible that other colonies also blind and kill potential prey, and no one has noticed. “Ecology is all about patterns – and we can become better at predicting them by honing our skills as observers,” says Gallagher. “This is fascinating stuff that deserves to be documented and shared with the public and scientific community. I think that when both of these groups hear about natural history observations they actually become better observers themselves and are more keen on detecting and documenting patterns.”

Which reminds me — has anyone taken a good look at the seagulls off California lately? I took this photo back in 2014, and I now wonder how the baby elephant seal died…

Scavengers or ruthless killers? I never even thought to ask a year ago. Photo by Christie Wilcox

Scavengers or ruthless killers? I never even thought to ask a year ago. Photo by Christie Wilcox

 

Citation: AJ Gallagher , ER Staaterman , N Dreyer (2015). Kelp gulls prey on the eyes of juvenile Cape fur seals in Namibia. African Journal of Marine Science, DOI:10.2989/1814232X.2015.1071718 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, More Science, select, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Birds, Ecology, Seals
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  • lump1

    Try picturing it as you fall asleep tonight! That’s some serious nightmare food.

  • btodder

    HOLY FUCK

  • Another commenter

    I guess I was lucky not to be in Namibia when I fell asleep on the beach. The gulls came and ransacked my basket with everything in it including scattering my small amount of cash around the sand. But at least I still have my eyes!

  • Mike Richardson

    Nothing a few boxes of Alka-Seltzer tablets can’t solve. Here birdies, come get the biscuits!

    • Private_Eyescream

      Or Mentos or mix those Gel Beads into birdseed or mix concrete powder in with birdseed. Plenty of ways to kill them without killing the bird predators.

  • Rott_n_guts

    Seagulls: vicious bastards from Florida to Maine. One Florida gull swooped down, clawed my head while I was eating a sandwich. Of course I dropped the sandwich and got it all sandy. I guess most people just leave the sandwich and the gull comes back to eat it–I put it in the garbage for the raccoons, not that I like them any more, but they’ve never attacked me. Yet.

  • Ron Voll

    I think this article may be giving the gulls too much credit. They have discovered that plucking the eye balls is a good way to get a meal. The stretch is to go on to say that they understand that this will then lead to the death of the seal pup ad then provide more meals. My view is that to the gulls the two meals are not related. They pluck out eyeballs and then later feast on a dead seal pup.

  • Rasengan

    This….is majorly fucked up…I always smirked at people(mostly girls do this) at the beach when they scream and act all scare like they are about to cry when sea gulls fly around and get near them…..now after this article I have reason to worry, who’s to say they won’t try coming after humans next.

  • Private_Eyescream

    There is another option. Chickenhawks and other aggressive bird-eating predatory birds.

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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer based in the greater Seattle area. Her bylines include National Geographic, Popular Science, and Quanta. Her debut book, Venomous, released August 2016 (Scientific American/FSG Books). To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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