Posted: Feb 25, 2013 11:33 AM by Suzanne Philippus
Updated: Feb 25, 2013 11:50 AM
One of the longest running research projects in Antarctica is the tracking of Weddell seals. For the past 10 years, Montana State University scientists, Jay Rotella and Bob Garrott, have been taking graduate and undergrad students to the icy continent for field trips.
Under the active Mt. Erebus volcano, the wind constantly blows, the ice cracks, and the fast ice pushes against the continent forming unique sculptures. It's a tough place to survive, yet, Weddell seals think this is a great place to call home. So great, in fact, there were 580 pups born this year making it another abundant reproductive season and a busy year for researchers who must find the seals, tag, weigh and measure them.
"We're working on population biology of Weddell seals, and Weddell seals are a marine mammal found only in Antarctica, and we're trying to understand what makes the population go up and down," Rotella said.
For MSU scientists and students, it's the perfect place to understand the population dynamics of a large predator; information that is useful in understanding the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem thousands of miles away.
"There are things we can learn there that are much more difficult to learn here in Montana, but certainly the knowledge is translatable," Garrott said.
Weddell seals are extremely approachable because they know their predators are in the water, not on top of the ice.
"We've got a 1,000-pound carnivore, an animal that weighs about the same as a horse, and it can kill a fish that weighs 150 pounds. We can walk up to that seal, efficiently tag that pup, check on the mother and see if she's having a pup that year, or not, see if she's still alive. All of these things you can do because the animals just don't have an overt fear that they show of humans and are so accessible to us we can put together complete lifetime histories," Rotella said.
These histories allow scientists to predict how mammals in Montana will react to climate and food problems.
"Insights we get from studying Weddell seals translates to the better insight about large carnivores that are more difficult to get with grizzly bears in our system, cause there much harder to study," Garrott said.
Rotella and Garrott just received a grant from the National Science Foundation to continue research for another five years.
To learn more about the Weddell seals, click here.
Stock footage provided by Mary Lynn Price, Weddell Seal Science