Aquatic Mammals (2012)

DOI: 10.1578/am.38.4.2012.343


In September 2011, two harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) presenting extensive traumatic lesions washed ashore in Belgium. Similar lesions, with large parts of skin and blubber missing, had not been recorded before on harbour porpoises in Belgium but were recently observed in a number of cases in neighbouring countries. We compared the lesions with the mouth and teeth structure of possible predators. The circumstances of the strandings, the observations during the necropsies, and the results of seal skull investigations pointed towards seals, presumably grey seals (Halichoerus grypus), as the prime suspects for having caused the death of both harbour porpoises. Although purely aggressive behaviour cannot be completely excluded, predation is considered most likely as part of the skin and blubber tissue of the harbour porpoises was missing. The grey seal is an opportunistic predator, feeding on a variety of fish and cephalopods, and occasionally even on crustaceans and seabirds, but predation on harbour porpoises, or any other marine mammal, had to our knowledge never been described. This finding might shed a new light on the cause of death of some of the other mutilated harbour porpoises recently stranded on southern North Sea beaches, and it presents a case of a change in the feeding strategy of a top predator.