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Seal of doom

22 May 2019 | News Roundup

The Morris Animal Foundation reports that climate change is killing seal pups cruelly, giving them hookworm as their mothers neglect them. Dang that climate change. Seal pups! But in South America, hookworm has always killed about a fifth of seal pups. So what’s new? Well, now it’s doing it because of climate change, according to the syllogism that killing seal pups is bad and climate change is bad so killing seal pups must be climate change.

There is an actual news story here. But it’s not about a study of climate change, which the actual study doesn’t seem to mention at all. Rather, pups with infection spend less time with their mothers which makes them more likely to be infected.

No wait. That’s circular. But the Foundation said the researchers “discovered that pups with higher parasite burdens were far more active in the water than pups with lower levels; playing and swimming, rather than resting by or avoiding it. Further analysis revealed the animals with higher infection rates spent less time with their mothers. The team believes this could be because warmer ocean temperatures make fish scarcer. Younger, less experienced females then must spend more time searching for food and less time with their offspring. Those pups, in turn, aren’t able to feed from their mothers and spend more time in the water; and have weaker immune systems that are less able to clear the parasites.”

Now in the first place, less experienced females would always have been less experienced and hence less effective hunters. What else can the term mean? In the second, we have pups who are sick being sick because they’re sick. And in the third, “The team believes this could be because warmer ocean temperatures make fish scarcer” but this belief is a theory for further exploration, not a finding, let alone a finding that the oceans are warmer as a secular trend and that humans caused it. As the story finally says, “It is unknown what the implications are”.

It’s very curious that the Morris Animal Foundation write-up said “The team hypothesized the higher infection rates are due to a climate change chain reaction that forces pups’ mothers to devote more time to searching for food, rather than providing the pups maternal care that can thwart parasites.” But the actual study doesn’t contain the words climate change or “warming”, (even “climate” is only in one footnote, in the title of a cited paper, and “warming” doesn’t appear even in the footnotes).

So who could resist the headline “Climate change, maternal care & parasitic infection all connected in SA fur seals”? Not them, anyway.

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