Montana State University

MSU team returns to "little slice of frozen Eden" to study seals

November 19, 2010 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Photos from top to bottom:

Technicians Trent Roussin (left) and Jessica Farrer finish tagging a Weddell seal pup. Farrer is preparing to take a genetic sample from the hind flipper of the mother. MSU researchers have incorporated the genetics of individual seals into their research. Photo by Jennifer Mannas 2009.

Technician Trent Roussin (right) and MSU ecology graduate student Jennifer Mannas use camera equipment in 2009 to estimate the mass of a female Weddell seal. Paired with a mathematical model, images from the camera allow researchers to get an accurate weight of the seals without having to disturb them. Photo by Jessica Farrer 2009.

Weddell seal mother and pup. Photo by Jennifer Mannas 2006 at Big Razorback Island.

MSU ecology professor Jay Rotella (left) works with MSU doctoral students Glenn Stauffer (center) and Thierry Chambert on collecting data on a Weddell seal mother and her pup in October 2010. Photo by Jessica Farrer.

MSU ecology professor Jay Rotella (left) works with MSU doctoral students Glenn Stauffer (center) and Thierry Chambert on collecting data on a Weddell seal mother and her pup in October 2010. Photo by Jessica Farrer.

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN -- Montana State University faculty and students have started their annual fall migration to Antarctica where they monitor Weddell seals in the most pristine ocean left in the world.

Now, for the first time in the 43-year study, the public can share the experience by watching a YouTube channel, video blog, podcasts, iTunes and other multimedia outlets including National Science Foundation Websites. MSU ecologist Bob Garrott said it's the beginning of a new outreach and educational effort that he and co-principal investigator Jay Rotella plan to expand in future field seasons.

Mary Lynn Price, a video journalist who has produced video and educational materials for numerous education institutions and news organizations, received NSF funding to join Garrott and Rotella, graduate students and technicians 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. Rotella left Bozeman on Oct. 14 and will return around Nov. 12. Garrott planned to leave Bozeman about Nov. 4 and return about Dec. 7. 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 work and live in four small huts 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.

Price said she will show the MSU students and scientists working in close quarters with these fascinating animals in temperatures that can range -- even without windchill -- from plus 10 F to minus 30 F. Concentrating on pups and adult breeding females, the researchers start the season by weighing and tagging every pup when it's about two days old. Weddell seals are wonderful to work with, Garrott said. They're 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.

Later in the season, the researchers visit every colony in their study. They collect genetic samples and record every tag they can find.

Price said she will begin to document the researchers conducting science under extreme conditions in 24 hours of daylight. Among other things, she will interview the students on the challenges involved in conducting research in Antarctica. In addition to Garrott, Rotella and Price, the MSU team includes Glenn Stauffer, a late-term doctoral student from Pennsylvania; Thierry Chambert, a new doctoral student from France; Shawn Farry, a "super-tech" who makes his living as a technician in exotic locations; Jessica Farrer, a returning "super-tech" who has experience working with other marine mammal species; and Jesse DeVoe, a technician who recently earned his undergraduate degree at MSU.

"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. (See Nov. 2 video blog post on MSU students working in Antarctica.)

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

Garrott and Rotella took over the Weddell seal study around 2001 from Don Siniff at the University of Minnesota. Siniff initiated the project around 1967. So far, the researchers have tagged more than 19,500 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."

Garrott said Antarctica is stunning, with the light reflecting off its glaciers, ice and snow. Rotella said it's inspiring to work in such a pristine environment and to know that such a place still exists.

"It's a place of great hope," Rotella said. "To me, it's an inspirational place that allows us to study a wild population that is healthy and working well. The Ross Sea is a little slice of frozen Eden."

Rotella and Garrott said they are concerned, however, because of threats they perceive from commercial fishing being developed in the Ross Sea.

"There ought to be one body of ocean in the world that we might be able to leave unexploited," Garrott said.

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

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