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Rare arctic sightings in Moray Firth

Marine scientists at the University of St Andrews have spotted a couple of rare Arctic visitors during routine seal surveys.

During regular surveys on 13 December 2005, the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) spotted a ringed seal (Phoca hispida), hauled out a few hundred metres upriver from Bonar Bridge in the Kyle of Sutherland. Earlier in the year, on 25 August, a hooded seal (Cystophora cristata) was caught on video in the River Conon in the Moray Firth.

Both species are normally found in the Arctic and have an affinity for ice. There have been records of both species as far south as Portugal, however, this was only the ninth ringed seal and 14th hooded seal reported around the coasts of the British Isles, according to the central database held at SMRU.

The ringed seal is a relatively small seal that resembles the common seal (Phoca vitulina). It is usually found associated with open water in fast ice and the outflows of active glaciers, and rarely ventures into the open sea or even on floating pack ice. The hooded seal, in contrast, is a relatively large seal usually found in close association with drifting pack ice.

The explanation for their sudden appearance in the Moray Firth is a matter of speculation. It could be due to changes in oceanographic conditions or a reduction in their prey species. However, hooded seals are a migratory species and young hooded seals, in particular, are known to be great wanderers. This is not the case with ringed seals but they are thought to be regular visitors to Shetland.

Due to problems with identification, normally the occurrence of either species around the British Isles may simply go unnoticed. This was not the case in this instance thanks to a new study being carried out in the Moray Firth by SMRU in collaboration with the Scottish Executive’s Environment and Rural Affairs Department, Scottish Natural Heritage, Fisheries Research Services, the Association of Salmon Fishery Boards and the University of Aberdeen with funding from the Scottish Executive, the Atlantic Salmon Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage and other charities.

ENDS

NOTE TO EDITORS

Images of the ringed seal are available from Claire Grainger, Press Officer, 01334 462530 or 07730 415 015

For more information/access to images, please contact:

Professor Ian Boyd, Director of SMRU, 01334 463628 or email ilb@st- andrews.ac.uk;

Rob Harris, 01334 462663 or 07770 735421;

Isla Graham, 07770 735229 or email img5@st-andrews.ac.uk.

Issued by Beattie Media on behalf of the University of St Andrews

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