- Animal News Archive
- New at the Zoo: Meet Our Gray Seal, Jo-Jo
Feb. 03, 2023
A brave and curious gray seal pup is making a splash on American Trail! One-year-old female Jo-Jo was rescued from the wild and made her debut at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in January. Get to know Jo-Jo’s personality and learn more about her second chance at life from assistant curator Rebecca Sturniolo.
What are your favorite facts about gray seals?
Some visitors will bark at the gray seals, mistaking them for their loud and gregarious cousins, the California sea lions. Gray seals sound quite different from sea lions—they whistle, moan, woo and expel air loudly through their nostrils.
Another favorite fact of mine is that these marine mammals are amazing divers and have been recorded at depths up to 1,500 feet! They use their sensitive vibrissae (whiskers) to help navigate underwater.
How did Jo-Jo come to live at the Zoo?
JoJo was born in the wild and found about three hours away from here on Ventnor Beach, New Jersey, with injuries to her neck and jaw. She was rescued by the Marine Mammal Stranding Center. Staff there discovered that cataracts in Jo-Jo’s eyes greatly reduced her ability to see; she seems to be able to only sense shadows and movement.
Her impairment made it difficult for her to catch fish, and rescue staff deemed her non-releasable. Luckily, our team has experience and expertise in working with pinnipeds who are visually impaired. We took her under our care Sept. 16, and she is doing very well! It is wonderful that we could offer Jo-Jo a second chance at life as an ambassador for her species.
The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute is one of just 10 institutions that house gray seals in the United States. It’s a pretty unique and special experience to see these animals up close. I hope that when visitors meet her, they will take pride in the work we are doing.
How do you tell Jo-Jo apart from the other seals?
She’s the smallest, but she is also still a juvenile and won't be fully grown until about 5 years of age.Jo-Jo only weighs about 130 pounds (60 kilograms), and our next smallest seal is about 220 pounds (100 kilograms). She’s about a quarter the size of our male, Gunther! Her fur is very mottled with spots as well.
What is Jo-Jo’s personality like?
The Zoo was a very unfamiliar environment for Jo-Jo, what with all the new sounds, smells, keepers and seals to meet. Jo-Jo has a bold personality and is not one to shy away. When we introduced her to the other members of our colony, she was usually the first to make contact.
She is also very smart and quickly learned to associate her feedings with the sound of a rattle. That said, she has a stubborn streak. If she’s not in the mood to participate in a training session or eat, no amount of calling or coaxing will get her out of the water!
What do gray seals eat? Does Jo-Jo have a favorite food?
Wild gray seals are opportunistic feeders and feed mostly on fish. They will also eat squid, octopuses, crustaceans, and may eat the occasional seabird if the opportunity arises. At the Zoo, we feed a variety of fish including capelin, mackerel, butterfish and herring. We also feed squid.
When Jo-Jo first arrived, she wouldn’t come over to take fish but kept to mostly one area of our holding pools. To build her confidence and strengthen our relationship, we would toss fish to her in the pool and let her eat them off the bottom while we quietly waited at the edge, saying the word “fish” each time we tossed them to her. She quickly learned to pair that word with food.
Within a few days, she came over to us at the edge of the pool and took fish from our hands, which was very exciting! A couple of weeks went by before she came out of the pool and over to us for feedings. Jo-Jo seems to like herring and mackerel the best. It took her a while to get used to squid and butterfish.
How do you adjust your training methods for an animal that is visually impaired?
Setting our animals up for success is always a priority we strive for, but with Jo-Jo we go the extra mile, recognizing she can’t see obstacles in her habitat or other animals or keepers. Because of her impaired sight, we’ve been taking everything slowly and working in small approximations.
We first started training Jo-Jo by using a target—a buoy on the end of a dowel—and placed beads inside so that it makes a rattling sound. She has learned to associate that sound with the keeper who is feeding her and will follow the targetaround.
When training Jo-Jo, we make sure our cues are loud and clear to avoid confusion when other animals are being fed. She is the only seal that has a specific sound that we use to call her over and engage her in training sessions, ensuring she goes to the right keeper for feeding and doesn’t interfere with another seal’s training sessions.
With a sighted seal, we might ask them to go further distances, knowing they would be able to see everything around them. With Jo-Jo, we take smaller steps to build her confidence moving around areas of the habitat where she may not be so familiar. Participation in training sessions is always voluntary, but the animals receive a favorite food as a reward when they do. For Jo-Jo, that’s fish!
What husbandry training behaviors is she learning?
Jo-Jo is learning to recognize her name and the word “fish.” We will say “fish” when handing her food so that she can anticipate what is coming towards her face since she can’t see very well. She may be a candidate for cataract surgery, so one of the husbandry behaviors we will focus on is training Jo-Jo to receive eye drops.
Like the rest of our seals, we will train her for voluntary blood draws, vaccinations, radiographs, ultrasounds, body and mouth checks and moving around her exhibit. With time, we will start training her using tactile cues, much like we use with our older seals who are also visually impaired.
How did you introduce Jo-Jo to the other seals in the colony?
We took things slow and introduced her to our calmest animals first, Kara and Kjya. We introduced one seal at a time and started by housing Jo-Jo and another seal next door to each other with only a “howdy” gate separating their pools. The seals could hear, smell each other and touch noses through the fence if they wanted to.
The next step was to open up the door slightly while feeding them. If sessions went well, we increased the door openings and moved the seals closer together.
Our goal was to always keep the interactions positive and to ensure that we could separate the seals if necessary. Thankfully, we never had to intervene. Within a few sessions, we could put both seals together in the same pool.
Jo-Jo was much more curious about the other seals than they were with her, but was never aggressive or pushy – should would nose them on their sides as a form of greeting and then would return her attention to the keeper who was feeding her.
Jo-Jo has successfully been introduced to all of our gray seals and now all five of them are sharing their three pools together.
What are you looking forward to most about working with Jo-Jo?
I’m excited to see how she assimilates into our colony. Jo-Jo doesn’t have the same experience being around people as our others seals, who were all born in zoos. It will be fun to see how much she learns and to watch her confidence grow during training and feeding sessions.
I want to help gray seals! What can I do?
Like many animals that call the ocean home, gray seals face many threats, including pollution, overfishing and injuries from vessels and people. Abandoned nets and fishing lines can entangle seals or their prey.
We can help gray seals and all ocean creatures by reducing our use of single-use plastics. Each year, up to 12 million metric tons of plastic pollution end up in the ocean. Plastic does not decompose; rather, it is reduced to smaller pieces—called microplastics—which have been found in the bellies of marine animals. What’s more, certain types of plastic can release chemicals and other toxins into the environment.
Protect gray seals and their habitats by opting for reusable water bottles, grocery bags, utensils and straws. We can all do our part to keep beaches and oceans clean.
Got any tips for spotting Jo-Jo on exhibit?
The best time to spot Jo-Jo is during feeding demonstrations. We typically feed our seals around 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. As Jo-Jo becomes more confident and comfortable with her habitat, it is likely she will choose to spend the majority of her day in the exhibit pool. We hope you stop by and see her during your next visit to American Trail!
This story appears in the February 2023 issue of National Zoo News. Did you know there’s another new face on American Trail? Meet our inquisitive ‘foodie’—a female bad eagle named Acadia—in this Q+A with keepers Ashley Graham and Sam Milne.
What is the new animal at the DC Zoo? ›
She's a sweet-natured, eager explorer with a taste for juicy wax worms. Meet Chiquita, the Smithsonian's National Zoo's new tamandua!What are some fun facts about gray seals? ›
Fun Facts About Gray Seals
Gray seals grow to a maximum length of 10 feet (3 m) and weight of 880 pounds (400 kg). 2. Gray seals live for 25 to 35 years. 3. Female gray seals are gray with black spots while males are black with gray spots.
Gray seals live for 25 to 35 years. They gather in large groups to mate. Males that breed on land can mate with many different females in a single breeding season. Females are pregnant for about 11 months and give birth to a single pup.What is the diet of a gray seal? ›
Gray seals have been documented eating 29 different species of fish and invertebrates, including herring, cod, mackerel and squid. They sometimes eat commercially valuable species, which makes them unpopular with fishermen.Are pandas leaving National Zoo in Washington DC? ›
The current agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association is set to end in December 2023, but Smith says she's confident there will be more pandas in D.C. in the future. “We are absolutely committed to have pandas for another 50 years and beyond,” Smith said.Are there polar bears at the DC Zoo? ›
No. There are no longer polar bears at the Smithsonian National Zoo because their lodgings were too hot in the summertime, and thus they were moved to cooler lodgings in the Midwest. Q: Can two-toed sloths be viewed at the Smithsonian National Zoo?Are grey seals friendly? ›
Gray seals may look friendly, but mounting evidence suggests that they can be vicious predators.How old is the oldest seal in the world? ›
The greatest authenticated age for a pinniped was estimated by scientists at the Limnological Institute in Irkutsk, Russia to be 56 years for the female Baikal seal (Phoca sibirica) and 52 years for the male, based on cementum layers in the canine teeth.What do grey seals do at night? ›
How do seals sleep. Seals sleep in the water as well as on land. In the water, they sleep floating in a standing position, like a fishing bobber, or floating horizontally on the surface. Because they are sleeping and not actively swimming, they can stay under water much longer than when hunting for food.Where do grey seals go in winter? ›
During the winter months, grey seals can be seen hauled out on rocks, islands, and shoals not far from shore, occasionally coming ashore to rest.
Do seals mate for life? ›
BREEDING: Spotted seals are annually monogamous. Males and females form pairs 10 days before the female gives birth, and pairs stay together until mating occurs after the pup is weaned. Females in the Bering and Okhotsk seas give birth in April and nurse their pups on the sea ice for three to six weeks.What is a group of grey seals called? ›
A group of seals is sometimes called a herd or colony. These seals live in large groups during the breeding season and travel in smaller groups during the rest of the year. The largest colony on record is located on Sable Island near Nova Scotia and contains 100,000 grey seals that travel there to breed.Do grey seals sleep? ›
Scientists have recorded them sleeping for minutes at a time while slowly drifting downward in a belly-up orientation. Like other marine mammals, seals sleep in water with half of their brain awake so that they can detect and escape from predators.How fast can grey seals swim? ›
Grey Seals have been known to burst up to speeds of around 35 kph (22 mph), but their usual speed is about 10 kph (6 mph).Is grey seal rare? ›
Globally, the grey seal is one of the rarest seal species and about 50% of the world population lives in British and Irish waters.Do we have to give the pandas back to China? ›
A spokesperson for the zoo told Reuters the return was part of the agreement with China that requires foreign zoos to allow the loaned pandas to spend their final days on Chinese soil.Why did China give us pandas? ›
At dinner in Beijing, China, in February 1972, First Lady Patricia Nixon mentioned her fondness for giant pandas to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. As a gesture of goodwill following President Nixon's seminal state visit, Premier Enlai gifted two giant pandas to the American people.Why did San Diego Zoo lose its pandas? ›
“China believes in having their animals retire back in their country, or be repatriated, so Bai Yun and Xiao Liwu are now going back home to China,” Dumont said. Bai Yun was born in 1991 at the Wolong Giant Panda Research Center in China and was among the original cohort of bears loaned to the zoo in 1996.Are there giant pandas at the Washington DC Zoo? ›
Asia Trail is home to the Smithsonian's National Zoo's most famous residents: giant pandas Tian Tian (adult male), Mei Xiang (adult female) and their new cub.Are there lions at the DC Zoo? ›
Lion. The Smithsonian's National Zoo is home to four African lions—males Shaka and Jumbe and females Shera and Amahle. Luke, one of the Zoo's famous residents, died in 2022.
Are there elephants at the DC Zoo? ›
Online visitors can catch a glimpse of the Smithsonian's National Zoo's elephants on the Elephant Cam. While five elephants (four females and one male) currently live on Elephant Trails, the exhibit is large enough to house between eight and 10 adult elephants and their young.Will a seal bite you? ›
Seals are large, powerful animals with sharp teeth and strong jaws, and will bite if they feel threatened. In humans, if a seal bite were to become infected by the bacteria Mycoplasma phocacerebrale, it can lead to a painful infectious disease known as “seal finger” as well as other complications.What is the meanest seal? ›
Like their feline namesakes, leopard seals are fierce predators. They are the most formidable hunters of all the seals and the only ones that feed on warm-blooded prey, such as other seals. Leopard seals use their powerful jaws and long teeth to kill smaller seals, fish, and squid.What to do if a seal approaches you? ›
Always let seals make the first move – let them approach you. Sit back, wait quietly and observe. Aim to stay calm and move slowly to avoid spooking the seals and provoking a startled response. Be confident that seals are usually gentle creatures unless they feel threatened.What animals are at the National Zoo in Washington DC? ›
Smithsonian National Zoological ParkWhat happened to the giraffes at the National Zoo? ›
What became of all these giraffes? Some stayed at the National Zoo. Some were sent to other zoos to support breeding programs, as is common. Some did not survive into adulthood.Does the DC Zoo have Komodo dragons? ›
The Smithsonian's National Zoo was the first zoo outside of Indonesia to successfully hatch Komodo dragons. Practice ecotourism by being an advocate for the environment when you're on vacation.What is Washington DC animal? ›
DC Bird. Approved on January 31, 1967, the Wood Thrush, a medium-sized thrush with the posture of an American Robin, but a slightly smaller body, became the District of Columbia official Bird.What is the biggest Zoo in the US? ›
The largest zoo in the United States is Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, measuring 406.30 acres for the zoo alone and 580 acres in total. The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has more than 7,000 animals and over 800 species of animals living within its borders.What is the biggest Zoo in Washington? ›
Woodland Park Zoo
Born well over a century ago on the former Phinney estate (of Phinney Ridge fame), the state's biggest zoo by animal count draws more than a million visitors in a normal year.
Why was April the Giraffe euthanized? ›
Veterinarians euthanized April after her arthritis continued to worsen, the park said. April, who produced five calves in her lifetime, was 20 when she died, the park said on Facebook.What happened to the hippos at the National Zoo? ›
After twenty-eight years in Washington, Billy died in 1955. He had become one of the most famous animals in the country—and, certainly, the most famous in Washington. His descendants continued to live in the National Zoo until the 2010s, when their exhibit was replaced by the current Elephant Trail.How much does it cost to go to giraffe Ranch? ›
If you go: Giraffe Ranch (38650 Mickler Rd. in Dade City) has tours at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily, by reservation only. Tours range from $99-$199 with add-on experiences such as lemur feeding, otter feeding or a rhinoceros encounter available. Call 813-482-3400 to reserve and visit girafferanch.com for more information.