Save the SEAL | Flipper Concerns

It is natural for seals to be in the New England area, and people want to help. This post is part of a series we’re calling Save the SEAL, in which we hope to address the most common questions and concerns we hear from people calling our marine animal hotline (617-973-5247). Learn what SEAL stands for in this previous post.  
Warning: There are pictures of wounded seals in this blog!

One concern that is voiced on the majority of calls to our hotline is “the flipper is broken”, “it can’t use the flipper” or “there is something wrong with its flipper because it won’t use it”. Today we will address those questions.

As most of you know from previous posts it is perfectly normal for seals to be out of the water and on land. However, unlike sea lions or fur seals (both found in the Pacific and at the marine mammal center at the Aquarium) the true seals (family: Phocidae) are unable to rotate their hips and “walk” on land. So the Atlantic seals look very awkward on land as they amble about.
One of the NEAq fur seals. Easily "walks" around on all four flippers. The only place to find these seals on the east coast is at Aquariums.
Here you can see a Gray seal lumbering up the beach. Not the most graceful of animals when they are out of the water.
One thing we do see a lot of is the lack of use of one of the front flippers. While we are not sure why these seals do this, we see it often enough to realize it is behavioral. In the Aquarium’s history, we have cared for hundreds of seals with clinical problems other than broken flippers that have displayed this behavior while in rehab.

Most seals we see on the beach require only a close-up visual exam. Here is what we look for when examining a flipper in particular:  

Are there any obvious lacerations or deep puncture wounds on or near the flipper?
The seal above has an obvious wound. This was a propeller strike. Not every injury is as obvious though.
Is there lack of uniformity between the flippers, that is to say swelling of the flipper that is reported not being used?
A good looking seal. Front flippers are uniform in size and shape. We monitored the seal while it was on shore. The seal scurried back into the water on the next high tide.
Another seal where both flippers are uniform shape and size. Multiple reports were sent in by concerned citizens of a broken flipper. Trained visual assessment suggests otherwise. Unfortunately, this seal had to be relocated due to human harassment. However, since we had to move the seal anyway, physical exam proved both flippers were fine.

Here you can see the awkward movement on land. But, what you might not notice is the front right flipper of this seal was swollen. This gray seal was brought to the University of New England for rehab.

Just as we tell all of you, after we do a close-up inspection of the seal and find no reason to intervene, we will back off and let it get the rest it needs while on the beach.

The above pictures show our department in the field educating and assessing a seal on the beach. The bottom picture shows the seal with plenty of room to do its own thing on its own time.
These are wild animals and we would be putting undue stress on the vast majority of them if we had to physically restrain every seal to look at their front flippers. If our visual inspections finds something wrong with the flipper or something else clinically wrong, then and only then will we do a physical exam, which requires the removal of the seal from the beach. This is extremely stressful on the seal. This is why we only do this on animals that appear to have some clinical problem.

We will palpate both flippers…
In order to get a good feel of the flipper it takes multiple people to restrain even a small seal. Above we are palpating the shoulder and flipper. Very stressful.

Another possible prop strike seal. Here we are palpating the flipper, ribs, and abdominal region to check for possible internal injuries.

and the rehab facility will take radiographs.
Above you can see a normal front flipper radiograph.
I have been doing this for quite a while now and can thankfully only recount a handful of truly broken or infected front flippers.

Stay tuned for more seal information.


(Oh and by the way… turtle release today!)

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