Montana State University

MSU researchers bring Antarctic research to third graders

December 8, 2010 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


MSU scientist Jay Rotella shows third graders how Antarctica looks from a satellite. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).    High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN -- Montana State University researchers who study Weddell seals in Antarctica closed up shop for another season on Wednesday.

While heavy equipment operators hauled their huts and supplies across the ice toward the McMurdo Station for storage, MSU ecologist Jay Rotella was already back in Bozeman, telling third graders at Morning Star School about this year's record-breaking season.

Rotella and fellow MSU ecology professor Bob Garrott are co-principal investigators of a 43-year study monitoring Weddell seals in the most pristine ocean left in the world. For the first time in the study, the MSU researchers shared their experiences throughout the fall with more than 100 Morning Star third graders.

Rotella - who staggers his time on the ice with Garrott - told the Morning Star students Wednesday that the researchers tagged 603 new baby seals this year. That was almost 200 more than normal and almost 400 more than the low year of 2004.

They don't know yet why so many babies were born this year, but that will be one of the questions they'll try to answer by analyzing the information they collected, Rotella said. He also told the third graders about the discovery this year of the most productive mother found in the long-term study. The 27-year-old seal gave birth to her 19th baby this year.

Rotella showed a video of a mother chewing the ice so her baby would have an easier time climbing in and out of the water while learning to swim.

"Can you imagine chewing ice at minus 10 degrees? This wears down the very teeth that the mother uses to catch fish," Rotella said. "So the mother may have given up part of her life for the sake of her pup."

Rotella also shows videos of emperor penguins leaping out of the water and sliding on the ice near the researchers.

"Our crew really loves seals, but we also love penguins," Rotella said. "They are too cool."

He showed a video of a baby seal being born, and noted that it weighed about 70 pounds at birth while its mother weighed about 1,000 pounds. Thirty-five days later, the mother weighed about 500 pounds and the baby weighed about 270 pounds.

Antarctica is so cold that fat is good, he said. Mother seals get fat by eating fish. Then they produce milk that's so high in fat that the seals grow quickly. Earlier in the fall, the students participated in an activity to better understand what seal milk is like. They added butter to milk.

"We hypothesize that pups benefit from getting lots of milk and see evidence that bigger moms make bigger pups," Rotella said. "If we're right, then pups ought to want to have a super fat mom."

The MSU study takes place in the Ross Sea, which is part of the southernmost ocean on the planet. It is the only marine system whose top predators - including the Weddell seal - still flourish. The MSU study 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 it yields broader information about the workings of the marine environment.

The MSU team consists of MSU graduate students and technicians. This year, for the first time, the team also included Mary Lynn Price, a video journalist who helped them share the Antarctic experience with the public by producing a YouTube channel, video blog, podcasts, iTunes and more.

During the field season, the Morning Star third graders - who included Rotella's daughter, Sophia -- e-mailed questions to the researchers and received responses almost immediately from Antarctica. They made seals out of sand bags and helped them grow by adding sand.

On Wednesday, the students asked question after question about Antarctica and seals. They giggled when they saw a photo of an MSU technician placing a bag over the head of a 1,000 pound seal. The bag calmed down the seal so the technician could replace a tag. The students learned that seal dads don't help raise their newborn pups. The students saw photos of New Zealand, a stepping stone the researchers use on their way south, where it was spring and 80 degrees when Rotella left there for Antarctica. When Rotella arrived five hours later in Antarctica, the temperature was minus 20. He landed on a white continent with "absolutely massive amounts of ice."

"The dominant reason people are there is for science," Rotella said. "For a guy like me, it's like heaven."

Rotella and Garrott are working with several Bozeman schools to pilot the development of curricular activities that use Weddell seal science to meet national biological teaching standards. By working with students and teachers at Morning Star, Hawthorne and Longfellow, Rotella said the researchers can see what works and doesn't work when trying to get students to learn larger biological lessons from their research.

"It's really awesome to be able to work with Montana students while developing outreach materials," Rotella said. "We know they'll help us develop materials that will get used throughout the country. And we love bringing our international research home to Montana and showing the connections between what we learn in distant places and what we learn in our Montana studies."

To help the school extend the experience, Morning Star Principal Tom Siegel said the school applied for and received a $975 SPARK grant from the Bozeman School Foundation. It will allow the school to buy a time-lapse camera that will be mounted in a natural area near the school so the students can conduct their own research and compare it to Antarctica. They might aim the camera at a nearby creek to watch the changing activities of animals and plants, for example. They might aim it at a robin's nest to watch the rapid growth of young birds in Montana and compare it to the growth of seal pups in Antarctica.

Sharing the Antarctic experience and adding a Bozeman component makes science come alive for the Morning Star students, according to Siegel and the third grade teachers, who Rotella said have been so involved with the researchers and communicating science to third graders.

Rotella added that he has been especially impressed with the efforts of Kathy Close, Nata Dayhoff, Lola Jeffers and Christine Rasmussen at Morning Star. He noted that the teachers have worked overtime on their own and with him on numerous occasions to integrate the real-world science into students' days.

"This takes a real love of teaching," he said.

Close added that, "Having them (the Weddell researchers) as partners is fabulous. They help us. We help them. The kids are the beneficiaries. That's what it's all about."

For a related article, see "MSU team returns to 'little slice of frozen Eden' to study seals" at http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=9037

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