Red-pelaged harbour seals, in Humboldt County, California: why some seals rust
Marine Pollution Bulletin 38(12): 1177-1183
In this paper we present data on the occurrence of red-pelaged harbour seals, Phoca vitulina, at a haul-out in Humboldt County, California. Density of red seals ranged from 4% to 17.5% (n = 21) and was comparable to that reported for San Francisco Bay, being the highest documented worldwide. The red colouration is the result of natural inorganic iron oxide/hydroxide pigments (limonite), which are present in small patches on the beach sand of the seals haul-out at the mouth of the Mad River. Thorough analysis of the river water and ocean water excluded these as possible sources for the iron oxide/hydroxide pigments. We found that the manmade reinforcement of the river bank adjacent to the haul-out consisted of greenshist boulders with a very high iron content. Weathering of these rocks produces red iron oxide/hydroxide particles which are then redeposited by rain or river action in small patches across the haul-out. Seals receive their red colouration through direct physical contact with these patches. SEM examination showed that these particles can adhere lastingly to the seals' hair. Other studies provide reason for concern that this situation may detrimentally impact the seals' health, (C) 1999 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.