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Back from the dead: World's oldest Saimaa ringed seal sighted after 28 years

Conservationists estimate that Venla is 33 years old.

Venla-saimaannorppa kuvattiin huhtikuussa eteläisellä Saimaalla.
Venla was first sighted at the end of April and again in May. Image: Ismo Marttinen / WWF

A rare Saimaa ringed seal long thought to be dead has been sighted in the southern Saimaa region in southeast Finland. According to WWF Finland regional head Ismo Marttinen, Venla was photographed in the area in late April.

"When Venla was transferred to southern Saimaa, she was estimated to be at least five years old. That means she is now at least 33 years old. That makes Venla the oldest surviving Saimaa ringed seal," Marttinen said.

Venla’s habitat is now part of the Taipalsaari municipality. She was also sighted after May Day and the most recent photos of her are from May. She has given birth to many pups during the 28 years she spent in southern Saimaa and still seems to be full of life.

Conservationists suspected that Venla may have left the area or died when no confirmed sightings of her were reported for some time.

"It’s known that seals do live long. The default for a Saimaa seal is more than 30 years," Marttinen observed.

From Savo to Saimaa in 1992

The Saimaa ringed seal is one of the rarest seals in the world. Conservation efforts for the animal began as far back as 1979, allowing the population to thrive in Saimaa. However it is still an endangered species that is still in need of protection.

In 1992, Venla was relocated from Haukivesi north of Savonlinna to southern Saimaa because at the time the seal population in Saimaa was declining. Conservationists hoped that Venla would help revive the shrinking population.

"She has reproduced beautifully and brought forth several pups. The Saimaa seal population is still small and the genetic diversity is very narrow. I can at least imagine that it would boost the genetic diversity to get Savo blood," Marttinen quipped.

Distinctive patterns help

Determining the age of the mammals requires years-long monitoring work. Marttinen photographed Venla as part of a University of Eastern Finland Photo ID research project that collects photos of Saimaa ringed seal individuals in an image bank. The pattern on each seal’s pelt is unique and permanent so it can be used as a sort of "fingerprint" to identify individuals.

This is how Venla was identified. "It was a surprise to everyone that the old Venla is still alive. At the same time the finding is evidence of how excellent the Photo ID method is for monitoring long-lived and rare Saimaa ringed seals," University of Eastern Finland researcher Mervi Kunnasranta said in a WWF Finland statement.

Tracking information on individual seals can be used for purposes such as estimating the size of the population as well as the animals’ life cycle and their relationships with each other.

"This is a good example of how seals can live a long life. We can declare the relocation experiment a success, but above all the Photo-ID has shown its effectiveness. Anyone who finds a Saimaa seal can take a photo and send it to WWF’s ringed seal gallery," Marttinen remarked.

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