Montana State University

MSU team faces new challenges as it studies Weddell seals in Antarctica

November 7, 2011 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


MSU graduate and research technician Jesse DeVoe, left, and Thierry Chambert, a doctoral student in ecology at MSU, work together to tag a new Weddell seal pup as part of an ongoing MSU Weddell seal population and mass dynamics study in the Erebus Bay area of Antarctica. (Photo courtesy of Mary Lynn Price).    High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN - Montana State University faculty and students are back in Antarctica monitoring Weddell seals in the most pristine ocean left in the world, but dramatic changes in the sea ice are causing new challenges.

MSU ecologist and principal investigator Bob Garrott said the ice in their study area is now first-year ice, meaning it's about three feet thick instead of 12 to 16 feet deep like last year's ice. That's thick enough for traveling by snowmobile, but not thick or stable enough for heavy vehicles to haul four huts over the ice for their base camp.

Because of large cracks in the ice and active breaks, the researchers have moved their base camp to a safer location, Garrott said. They have prepared emergency camps in case they get stranded while visiting seal colonies. For some work, they are considering traveling over a glacier instead of the frozen sea. They may have to use helicopters at times instead of driving snowmobiles.

"It's a bit of drama, but we will figure it out," Garrott said. "We will figure out a way to get our job done safely no matter what."

Garrott said the sea ice had been thick because an iceberg about 1,000 feet thick, 30 miles wide and over 100 miles long broke off the Ross Ice Shelf about 10 years ago and became grounded on the sea floor. It stayed there, preventing currents from coming into the Sound and sweeping out the ice. As a result, the ice kept building up until the huge iceberg broke apart a few years ago and a major blow-out occurred this year that blew out the old thick sea ice. Garrott said he doesn't know why the blow-out happened, but noted that the weather in Antarctica is unpredictable like it is in Montana.

To see the researchers in action, the public can once again watch a YouTube channel, video blog, podcasts, iTunes and other multimedia outlets including National Science Foundation Websites. Garrott and co-principal investigator Jay Rotella began the outreach and educational effort in 2010 and hope to expand those efforts if the NSF awards them another five-year grant after this season. This is the 44th season for the Weddell seal study that Garrott and Rotella took over around 2001 from Don Siniff at the University of Minnesota. Siniff initiated the project around 1967.

Mary Lynn Price, a video journalist who has produced video and educational materials for numerous education institutions and news organizations, joined Garrott, graduate students and technicians again this year as they continue working in the Ross Sea.

The Ross Sea is part of the southernmost ocean on the planet and the only marine system whose top predators -- including the Weddell seal -- still flourish. The researchers said theirs is one of the longer running animal population studies and the longest marine mammal study in the southern hemisphere. It not only focuses on changes in the Weddell seal population, but also yields broader information about the workings of the marine environment. The study incorporates information on sea ice, fish, ecosystem dynamics, climate change, and even the Antarctic toothfish, which is marketed in U.S. restaurants as Chilean sea bass.

MSU graduate students and technicians left Bozeman at the end of September to set up camp and receive training for living and working in the wintry conditions that exist during the Austral spring of Antarctica. Garrott, who left Bozeman Nov. 5, plans to return in early December. Everyone is generally off the ice between Dec. 10 and 15, because it's too dangerous to continue living on sea ice once it starts turning soft, Garrott said.

The researchers normally work and live on the sea ice near Big Razorback Island, 18 to 20 miles from McMurdo Station, the largest NSF base in Antarctica. They're located near huts used by early Antarctic explorers Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott. This year's base camp is located on the sea ice of Erebus Bay near the Erebus Glacier Ice Tongue.

Price, who is already in Antarctica, shows the MSU team members as they work in close quarters with Weddell seals in temperatures that can range -- even without windchill -- from plus 10 F to minus 30 F. Visitors to her sites can hear the researchers describe their work and see how they prepared to work in Antarctica. Visitors can watch seals and hear their calls. They can visit the base camp, watch changes in the weather and much more.

Garrott said the study concentrates on pups and adult breeding females. The researchers start the season by weighing and tagging every pup when it's about two days old. Later in the season, the researchers visit every colony in their study, collecting genetic samples and recording every tag they can find.

Weddell seals are relatively gentle for being a top predator in the ecosystem, but they can weigh over 1,000 pounds and have a set of teeth like a bear's, Garrott said.

In addition to Garrott and Price, this year's team includes Michael Yarnall, a recent MSU graduate in fish and wildlife management; and Jesse DeVoe, a technician who earned his undergraduate degree at MSU and participated in last year's field season. Other team members are Thierry Chambert, a doctoral student from France; Jessica Farrer, a returning "super-tech" who has experience working with other marine mammal species; and Darren Roberts and Colleen Siudzinski, technicians who worked on monk seal projects in the Hawaiian islands.

"It's a fantastic opportunity for students and the people you bring down as technicians," Garrott said. "The entire continent is set aside by international treaty to be preserved. Not just anybody can go down there."

Undergraduates who want to attend graduate school benefit greatly from showing that they have real-world research experience working in places such as Antarctica, Garrott added. Providing that opportunity, in fact, is one reason that he and Rotella took over the study. He added that the study allows MSU to train the next generation of ecologists and professors.

"Exposing students to that opportunity is probably the best thing we do," Garrott said.

Last year, the researchers saw a bumper crop of pups, Garrott said. So far in the study, the researchers have tagged more than 20,000 seals and maintain such a complete database that it's used by scientists all over the world. Rotella said the researchers know every Weddell pup that has been born in the study population, as well as its mother, brothers and sisters. They know which pups have thrived and which ones haven't. Since the seals always return to the same colony, the researchers have been able to monitor some individuals for more than 30 years.

"That tool is one of the most powerful tools for demographic studies," Garrott said. "We have one of the best studies in the world as far as its duration and intensity of tagging."

Some of Price's work will be available to the public while the group is in Antarctica. Other pieces will be available in a few months after she returns to her production studio. For more information, go to the video blog at http://inmotion.typepad.com/weddell_seal_science and the YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/WeddellSealScience.

For a related article, see "MSU researchers bring Antarctic research to third graders."

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu