Mystery Killer of Decapitated Seals Found on Beaches Since 2016 Has Been Identified

( – For over eight years, brutally decapitated seals have been turning up on California’s beaches. The killer has finally been identified, and it’s left biologists astonished. The good news is that humans aren’t responsible. The bad news, for the seals anyway, is that their killer will remain free to strike again.

Since 2015, headless seal corpses have been regular discoveries on beaches in northern California. Dead seals aren’t unusual, but the fact that they’d been decapitated was. Ecologists were baffled; they reviewed all the possible predators but thought the beheadings were too neatly done. Some feared it was the work of a sick human killer. Now the mystery has finally been solved after researchers set up a camera near a seal colony in MacKerricher State Park, the decapitation hot spot.

Doctoral student Frankie Gerraty was the first to see what was happening. Watching footage from the camera, he saw a coyote dragging a dead seal into view and then “over the course of five minutes proceed to take its head off.” Marine mammal specialist Sarah Grimes had already considered coyotes, along with a range of other predators, from pet dogs to bald eagles, but discounted them. Gerraty had thought of them too, but decided the neck stumps were too cleanly severed. Then he saw the video.

Scientists already knew coyotes, which are becoming more common in California since officials placed restrictions on hunting and poisoning them, would eat dead seals. This is the first time they’ve been caught killing live ones, though. Now researchers are studying the video, which hasn’t been publicly released yet, and trying to understand this “seemingly new predator-prey relationship.” The first question they want to answer is why the coyotes only eat the heads. Gerraty thinks the brains might be more nutritious than the rest of the seal, but so far, only the coyotes know for sure.

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