Elephant Seals Recruited to Track Ocean Health for Scientists


Photo credit: Joachim Plötz, Alfred Wegener Institute

Bull elephant seals are well known for their size and earth-shaking fights during mating season. But what is also notable about them is their long trips to sea. Every year from March to April the males of the only reproduction colony of the Southern elephant seal in the Antarctic come to the South Shetland Islands for moulting, after which they return to sea and don't come to land again until six months later for mating season in the Antarctic spring. This year during the tiny window of time that the bull seals are on land, scientists from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in the Helmholtz Association tagged some of the males with transmitters that will send back information about the health of the oceans as the bulls migrate, including where they find prey, at what depth, and where the food supplies are especially good in the Southern Ocean. Elephant seals cover thousands of kilometers, diving as deep as 2,000 meters for feeding. So tagging them with transmitters is a perfect way to track how well fisheries are doing across the Southern ocean.

According to the press release, "When a seal with a transmitter dives, it collects data - even under the ice - and then appears on the surface again to breathe after some time. While it breathes fresh air, the recorded data package is sent to a satellite that passes on the signals received. With a little luck the transmitter will continuously transfer data for a year. When the next moulting takes place, the wonder of microelectronics developed by the Scottish Sea Mammal Research Unit will then fall off."

Information like the temperature and salt content of the water the seals travel through will help scientists collect data on how the oceans are changing, as well as information on where the most productive areas of the ocean are for fish and squid, the seals' main food sources. The seals provide scientists with a way to collect data during months when the Antarctic is covered in ice, making data measuring difficult.

"Research vessels cannot yet sail continuously in the Antarctic Ocean at this time. Our seals," say Plötz and Bornemann full of conviction, "are therefore genuine pioneers of research."

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Tags: Animals | Fishing | Oceans

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