An 'Army' Of Seals Gathers Data In Antarctica

Boldly going where no seal has gone before

Since 2004, scientists have been sticking sensors on seals' heads and sending them out on a mission: to collect detailed information about the oceans surrounding Antarctica. Now, all that information has finally been made available to the public.

The data give an in-depth look at how climate change is altering the ocean around Antarctica, and how animals like the seals adapt to the changing conditions. The database is an interdisciplinary goldmine that has already spawned 77 scientific papers in fields from biology, oceanography, and technology.

"They [the seals] are taking data from places where there has been virtually no data before. It's unique," Mike Fedak, head of the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St. Andrew's University, told AFP.

Fedak is part of an 11-country consortium called Marine Mammals Exploring the Oceans Pole to Pole or MEOP. Over the past 10 years the seals pressed into duty collected more than 300,000 profiles of the water--vertical cross sections that tell the researchers exactly what the ocean temperature and salinity were as the seal dove into the water, sometimes as deep as 6,000 feet. When the seals are at the surface, the data is automatically sent to the researchers.

"The information sent back to us gives us details about the seal's immediate physical environment. It's like tweeting," researcher Lars Boehme said in a press release.

The seals are 'recruited' by researchers when they are trapped and immobilized. The scientists then quickly measure the animal and glue on the sensor, releasing the seal less than an hour later. The one-pound sensors are waterproof and last for a year before they fall off when the seal molts.

Gathering information about the Antarctic ocean is of particular interest to researchers because many of the icy areas around the continent are melting rapidly, and sending a human expedition to gather data about the Antarctic waters is prohibitively expensive, if not downright impossible. Seals, unlike humans, regularly hang out in the Antarctic, which makes them an ideal scientific partner for ocean research.

Seal With Sensor

Seal With Sensor

A female southern elephant seal with a sensor.Lars Boehme
Seal With Sensor

Seal With Sensor

The data gathered by the seals can help scientists better understand the swiftly changing Antarctic environmentLars Boehme
Pine Island

Pine Island

Researchers at work on Pine IslandMichael Fedak
Sensor

Sensor

The sensors are waterproof, and can record information even when the seals dive thousands of feet into the waterLars Boehme