A Université de Montreal professor says a number of headless seals found around the Gulf of St. Lawrence since late June is likely the work of scavengers.

Stéphane Lair, a professor at the university’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, said scavenger species usually go for the head first.

“Scavengers attack a carcass quickly, and they go for orifices — the nose, the mouth, the nostrils. So it’s the head that comes away from the body first,” he said.

How the animals died is still not known. So far, no necropsies could be performed because the seals’ bodies were too badly decomposed.

However, Lair said photos of the corpses support the scavenger theory.

The professor said the fact most of the seal corpses washed up on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River does not mean that’s where they died. It’s more likely that they died in more remote locations, where their carcasses were more susceptible to scavenging.

Currents would have then carried the carcasses to their final resting spot.

Increase not necessarily a warning sign

Lair said the spike in discoveries of dead seals does not necessarily imply an increased mortality rate among the animals.

“If we had an increase in births last year, it would be normal to find more carcasses,” he said.

The number of discoveries also reflects heightened public concern for the animals, said Josiane Cabana, director of Quebec’s marine mammals emergency network.

She said the number of reports of dead and injured seals has grown since the start of the summer, when media reports of the headless seals first came out.

“It surprised us in some ways because it makes you realize how closely people follow the news and how interested they are in wanting to understand and get involved,” she said.

Lair said its important that the deaths continue to be studied in order to assess if there really is a rising mortality rate among the animals.

“This could signal other problems,” he said.

For now, Lair said the known mortality rate among seals this year is not out of the ordinary.

Every year, around 75 seal carcasses are found along the shores of the St. Lawrence River.