Well, there’s one thing you can say about Lily, an 11-year-old gray seal at Brookfield Zoo: She’s kind of a showoff.
On Jan. 2, Lily gave birth to a male pup — the first birth of an animal at Brookfield Zoo in 2016 and the sixth gray seal in the zoo’s collection. Just two years ago, on Jan. 1, 2014, Lily was also first in line when she gave birth to the new pup’s older brother, Charles.
Initially, the zoo reported that the newest gray seal was a female. Last week, Rita Stacey, curator of marine mammals for the Chicago Zoological Society, confirmed the newest member of the zoo’s family was a male. A name for the new pup should be picked in the next couple of weeks, Stacey said.
While gray seals are popular animals in the collections of European zoos, there are just 24 gray seals scattered among eight North American zoos, said Stacey. Brookfield Zoo is one of just three zoos that are active breeding facilities in North America. That means there are at least one male and two females in the collection. Brookfield Zoo also has an older male seal to serve as a companion for Brookfield’s stud male, 12-year-old Boone, when a female is taken off exhibit to give birth.
Boone and Lily produced their first offspring, Charlie in 2014. Soon, Charlie will be leaving Brookfield Zoo for another institution and will be paired with a young female.
Stacey played a key role in placing Charlie at that other institution, as she is something of an expert on gray seals in zoo collections in North America. For the past eight or nine years, Stacey has been the studbook keeper for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and she keeps records of the pedigrees of each gray seal in North American zoos.
“With such a small population, we’re able to stay in good contact with the gray seal holders,” said Stacy, who helps find animals and make recommendations for breeding possibilities.
“I work closely on the gray seal group to make good genetic pairings,” Stacey said.
Gray seals are native to the upper East Coast of North America, including the New England shore. They’re also prevalent on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and in the Baltic Sea.
Gray seals are not as popular in North American zoos as harbor seals. Brookfield Zoo has both species in its collection and the two different types of seals can share space with one another, Stacey said.
The gray seals live an average of 25 to 30 years, said Stacey, though they’ve been known to live into their early 40s. The oldest at Brookfield Zoo is 28 years old, she said. The oldest gray seal in a North American collection is 29; that seal just happens to be the grandfather of both Charlie and Brookfield Zoo’s newest pup. Gramps is housed at another institution today.
You won’t be able to see the new pup and Lily on display for several weeks. They are off exhibit, bonding, at present. The white fur on the new pup will molt within two to four weeks and will be replaced with short, stiff hair similar to an adult gray seal.
The new pup weighed a little more than 30 pounds at birth, but it will be much, much bigger — three to four times bigger — by the time he’s on display at Brookfield Zoo. Baby gray seals gain several pounds per day.