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Why Did An Octopus-Wielding Seal Slap A Kayaker In The Face?

Editor's note, Oct. 3, 10:20 a.m.: This story was updated to include additional information about the identity of the marine mammal. Scientists familiar with the area said the animal is a New Zealand fur seal, not a sea lion.

A seal smacks a kayaker with an octopus, and the video capturing the unlikely encounter quickly becomes a viral sensation.

The conflict between man and beasts happened off the coast of New Zealand's South Island.

Taiyo Masuda, Kyle Mulinder and friends were going for a paddle off the coast of Kaikoura. Masuda's camera follows the seal as it zips beneath the ocean's surface and pops up a couple of feet from Mulinder and flings an octopus his way.

"Whoa!" Masuda shouts, as Mulinder shakes his head and looks back into the water.

"I'm not sure who got more of a surprise: the seal, the octopus, or me," Mulinder wrote on Instagram in a comment about the video.

But what exactly was the mammal up to?

For answers, we turned to two scientists who know something about what makes sea lions tick: Colleen Reichmuth, a principal investigator and associate research scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz's Institute of Marine Sciences, and Peter Cook, an assistant professor of psychology at the New College of Florida who studies animal cognition and has experience with sea lions.

First off, they wanted to say that the pinniped in question was a sea lion, not a seal. Cook guesses the star of the show might be a New Zealand sea lion based on the whereabouts, but he couldn't be completely sure from the video alone.

Sea lions and fur seals belong to the otariid family and are sometimes called "eared seals." Unlike true seals, however, they have external ear flaps and big front flippers, which allow them to be more active on land.

Behaviorally, Cook says, sea lions are more outgoing than seals and have a more flexible foraging ecology, meaning that they eat a wider variety of things — crabs, squids, octopuses, really anything they can get a hold of.

Sea lions also eat their prey in much less predictable ways.

It might be sea lions' tendency to play that gives them their complex feeding behaviors, Cook says. Sea lions spend anywhere from nine months to two years with their mothers before venturing out on their own. During that period, they are being fed milk by their mother and have a lot of free time, most of which they use to play.

"In animal behavior work, we tend to think of play as a way that an animal learns and sort of preps itself to take on a more complicated set of potential behaviors as an adult," Cook says.

So was the marine mammal just playing with the octopus?

It's hard to say, Cook says, but it's possible. "They do like to fiddle with their food, and throwing an octopus around could be pretty fun," he says.

Cook says he has witnessed sea lions in captivity playing with leftover food after finishing a meal. For half an hour or so, a sea lion might throw a piece of fish up and down, playing catch with itself.

For Cook, a sign that this marine mammal might have been messing around with the octopus is that after the smacking incident, it circles back, swimming very slowly. The way it turns and flops its flipper tells Cook that it's pretty relaxed, and sea lions are not usually relaxed when they're chasing down food.

At the same time, sea lions also sometimes throw their food around to make it easier to eat.

Reichmuth says the video could portray typical sea lion foraging. "The behavior in that video is pretty normal behavior for a sea lion that is feeding on prey that is too big to swallow whole," Reichmuth says.

Sea lions don't have grinding teeth, so while they can hold onto a slippery fish or octopus, they can't chew it well. Instead, they bring the prey to the surface and smash it on the water to break it into bite-size pieces, she says.

Reichmuth and Cook agree that it is entirely likely a feeding sea lion would have flung the octopus out of the water and smashed it on the surface, whether the kayakers had been there or not.

Sea lions typically regard humans with indifference. "They definitely will approach people and look at them, but they mostly just do their own thing," Cook says.

So it's unlikely a sea lion would use an octopus as a weapon to fight the humans, according to Cook. "The idea of a sea lion hitting a person aggressively with an object — I've never heard of that happening. I'd be very surprised," he says.

But even though sea lions can be indifferent toward humans, it doesn't mean they can't be bugged by us, Reichmuth says. "Sea lions are playful animals, but that doesn't mean they're not disturbed by the presence of people," she says, especially when they are carrying out biologically important activities like foraging for food.

A sea lion navigates through a school of sardines in the waters off Mexico's Espiritu Santo island  in 2015.
/ Alejandro Prieto/Barcroft Media/Getty Images
Alejandro Prieto/Barcroft Media/Getty Images
A sea lion navigates through a school of sardines in the waters off Mexico's Espiritu Santo island in 2015.

The kayakers, she says, most likely paddled into an area where the sea lion was feeding, putting them in the line of fire. "You see the animal surface a few times, so [the kayakers] probably were not where they should have been, maybe a little too close to feeding animals," she says.

This makes her think that while the video is entertaining, it also evokes a larger issue: the encroachment of people into wildlife areas.

Common courtesy for wildlife, she says, is to stay well away from the "threshold of response," which is when animals alter their behavior because of human presence.

In the end, though, it's hard to know with certainty what the now world famous sea lion was doing with the octopus, or if its behavior was affected by the kayakers.

Anytime someone witnesses a novel sea lion behavior, or the unexpected actions of any behaviorally flexible animal, Cook says, there's often speculation about why it might have done it.

"Frequently people observe sea lions doing new things that we did not know they could do," Cook says. "There are always a lot of questions, and we make our best guess. But, yeah, they can surprise you."

After this story was posted, an eagle-eyed reader from New Zealand named Aaron Heimann emailed us to say that the scientists that we spoke with may have misidentified the otariid in the video. He wrote that it was a New Zealand fur seal, not a sea lion.

We decided to check that out, so we spoke with Dr. Will Rayment, a marine mammal researcher at the University of Otago on New Zealand's South Island and Dr. Robert Harcourt, a professor of marine ecology at Macquire University in Sydney, who has studied fur seals in various parts of the world.

Rayment and Harcout both say that the star of the video is a New Zealand fur seal. It's easy to tell, they say, because New Zealand fur seals have very pointy noses and obvious whiskers compared with the blunt noses of New Zealand sea lions.

According to Rayment, the fur seal likely caught the octopus and was thrashing it against the surface of the water to break it up, which is consistent with Reichmuth's hypothesis.

Harcourt says it looks like the seal was intentionally hitting the kayaker with the octopus, but the slap in the face could have just been coincidental. He adds that fur seals do sometimes play with their food, as Cook describes.

"I've watched the same species tear up an Eastern angel shark at the surface, which is quite a large shark, and keep letting it swim away a bit, and then chase after it. They'll do that for quite long periods of time," Harcourt says.

Fur seals can be bolder or more timid, depending on where they live and how much interaction they have with humans.

Off the coast of Kaikoura, where these kayakers were paddling, Harcourt says they're not scared of people at all. In fact, they can be quite curious.

"I've had young fur seals climb up onto my kayak. They just sort of look at you," he says.

Rachel D. Cohen is an intern on NPR's Science Desk.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel D. Cohen
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