With their big, glossy black eyes and downy fluff, baby Weddell seal pups are some of the most adorable newborns in the animal kingdom. But these cute infants are far from helpless bundles of joy. New research published in the journal Marine Mammal Science reveals that Weddell seal pups likely possess the most adult-like brain of any mammal at birth.
The seal pups’ brains, compared to adult seals’ brain proportions, are the largest known for any mammal to date. The researchers write that this is “remarkable” considering that the pups are quite small at birth compared to many other newborn mammals.
To arrive at these findings, a team of researchers from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and the National Museum of Natural History traveled to Antarctica to collect fresh pups specimens. They took advantage of the fact that many pups never make it to adulthood due to stillbirths, abandonment and accidental death, such as being crushed by an adult. The researchers collected 10 dead seal pups (which quickly freeze in the Antarctic temperatures), conducted a few measurements and then decapitated and shipped the frozen heads back to the Smithsonian. They also tossed in a couple adult Weddell seal heads into the mix, one of which had died from acute toxemia–possibly from its gut being punctured by a fish spine–and the other whose cause of death could not be determined.
Back in the U.S., the researchers partially thawed the skulls in a lab and–like a well picked-over Thanksgiving turkey–manually peeled the tissue off of the baby seal faces. Then, they drilled into the skulls to extract the intact brains. Finally, they put the bones into a tank full of flesh-eating beetles to remove any remaining scraps of meat. Clean skulls and brains in hand, they went about taking measurements, and they also drew upon measurements of some older Weddell Seal skull specimens from the museum’s collection.
Remarkably, baby Weddell seal brains are already 70 percent developed at birth, the team found. Compare this to human infants, whose brains are a mere 25 percent of their eventual adult mass. As a Smithsonian statement explains, baby animals born with proportionally larger brains usually live in challenging environments in which they need to act quickly in order to survive. Other animals that share this trait include most marine mammals, zebras and wildebeest.
For Weddell seal pups, large brains likely help with diving under ice sheets and orienting themselves under water at less than three weeks old–an extremely dangerous task for any mammal, newborn or not. The pups must acclimate quickly since Weddell seal mothers abandon their young at about 6 weeks old, meaning they need to be able to completely fend for themselves when that day arrives.
In nature, however, everything comes with a price. The Weddell seal pups may have the biggest, best developed brains on the block when compared to what they will be as adults, but this metabolically taxing organ requires excessive energy to maintain. A pup weighing just 65 pounds needs between 30 to 50 grams of glucose per day in order to survive, and the team estimates that the energetically hungry brain may account for a full 28 grams of that demand.
Luckily for the seal pups, their mothers’ milk is almost exactly matched to the babies’ caloric needs. Weddell seal milk supplies about 39 grams of sugar per day. Females seals, however, lose significant weight while tending to their young, which jeopardizes their own survival. At their mother’s cost, the babies’ brains are allowed to thrive. That is, until their mother decides she’s had enough with the nurturing and leaves her pups to survive on their own.