Leopard seal pup’s lungs were failing, CT scan shows

A leopard seal pup born off St Kilda beach, Dunedin, on Tuesday has been found to have only had 10 per cent of normal lung capacity.

A leopard seal pup born off St Kilda beach, Dunedin, on Tuesday has been found to have only had 10 per cent of normal lung capacity.

The pup was euthanised on Wednesday after a vet determined it could not be saved.

NIWA cetacean biologist and leopard seal expert Dr Krista Hupman was part of a team that arranged for a CT and MRI scan of the pup. Dr Hupman said results showed the pup’s lungs were filled with fluid and were barely working.

“Unfortunately this meant if the seal hadn’t been euthanised it would have endured a slow and painful death. It was a huge relief for everyone involved to know that the decision to put the pup down was the kindest option.” Dr Hupman flew from Wellington to Dunedin as soon as she heard about the pup’s birth. “This is something I may never experience again in my lifetime so I really wanted to see it for myself. What was really significant is that this is the first time anyone has witnessed a seal giving birth to a pup in the water.“ After the pup was put down, Dr Hupman worked with the Department of Conservation, Otago Museum and local iwi to arrange for a CT scan and MRI. “We know a MRI has never been conducted on any seal before so this is an incredible opportunity for us to learn more.” The scan was undertaken at a private hospital in Dunedin.  “I am so grateful to such a dedicated team of people who made this happen,” Dr Hupman said.

This event has sparked the formation of a group comprising NIWA experts, volunteer research group leopardseals.org, and others to carry out more research on leopard seals around New Zealand. 

“We are hoping to conduct a necropsy, or animal autopsy, on this pup and work together on publishing some of our findings from the CT and MRI scans. We hope the necropsy will help with coordinated research to make the best use of material that becomes available from rare events like this.” The group has set up a Give A Little page in a bid to recover the more than $3500 cost of the scans. “Any help from the community would be extremely appreciated,” Dr Hupman said. The website is https://givealittle.co.nz/cause/leopardsealresearch . Dr Hupman has been researching whether leopard seal sightings around New Zealand are becoming more common. The seals are an Antarctic species with New Zealand outside their normal range, but her research shows this may be changing. She has set up an 0800 number for people to report sightings of leopard seals so she can collate further information on their presence within New Zealand waters. “I would encourage anyone with historical or current photos of leopard seals in New Zealand waters to call the hotline and become involved in this research We are particularly interested in further sightings of the 3m female leopard seal who left this taonga behind." The number is 0800 LEOPARD (0800 5367273).

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