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It’s October - springtime in the Antarctic. And on the Ross Sea, it’s pupping season. The world’s southernmost-breeding mammals, the Weddell seals, are hauled out on the fast ice of McMurdo Sound. The temperature hovers near zero degrees Fahrenheit. The surface of the sea remains frozen for miles. The only breaks in the ice are tidal cracks and breathing holes that the seals have carved out with their teeth. As the summer progresses and brings with it continuous daylight, the sea ice covering this area will begin to fracture and melt. For now, though, the ice is solid and the frozen landscape is dotted with female seals and their pups. 

Weddell seals are uniquely adapted to survive life in this polar habitat. Just like their phocid (seal) relatives in the Arctic, these seals have thick blubber that insulates their bodies from the frigid climate. Still, life in this extreme environment isn’t easy! 


Learn about the extreme Antarctic conditions Weddell seals are adapted to live in. (2:20)

Video Transcript

While environmental changes have presented themselves differently in the Arctic and Antarctic, one common theme is that conditions have become less predictable. Just as dealing with an unpredictable situation can be hard for a person, adapting to an unpredictable environment can be challenging for an animal. For Weddell seals, whose migration, foraging habits, and breeding activities are dependent on specific sea ice conditions, such unpredictable conditions could have negative impacts.

Dr. Jo-Ann Mellish is a Marine Mammal Scientist.  She and her research team want to understand how hard it is to be a polar seal. In particular, they're curious to know how seals stay warm in such cold environments. Understanding how Weddell seals are able to survive in their environment will help the scientists begin to predict how seals at both poles may be impacted by changing environmental conditions.


Dr. Jo-Ann Mellish explains why the team is interested in studying polar seals. (1:56)

Video Transcript

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NSF logo

The research described in Southern Exposure was funded by the Office of Polar Programs, Antarctic Organisms and Ecosystems, National Science Foundation, Award #1043779.

All research was conducted under National Marine Fisheries Service Marine Mammal Protection Act authorization 15748 and Antarctic Conservation Act permit 2012-003. 

Unless otherwise noted, the videos in this virtual field trip are courtesy of Jo-Ann Mellish, John Skinner, Henry Kaiser, or the Alaska SeaLife Center.



Meet Jo-Ann Mellish
Meet Markus Horning
Meet Allyson Hindle
Meet John Skinner

Antarctic map

  FAST ICE (n) - sea ice that is attached to the shore
  TIDAL CRACK (n) - a broken area of sea ice caused by movement of the tides
  ADAPT (v) - to change behaviors or physical traits to survive in a specific environment
  POLAR (n) - describing the area of the Earth’s surface around the north and south poles
  PHOCID (n) - the scientific family name for true (earless) seals
  ICE SHELF (n) - a floating sheet of ice, attached to a landmass
  AUSTRAL (adj) - of or relating to the southern hemisphere
  MIGRATION (n) - movement from one area to another
  FORAGE (v) - to search for and collect food
  THERMOREGULATION (n) - the ability to maintain a constant body temperature under changing conditions
  HYPOTHESIS (n) - a proposed explanation to a question that must be tested
  PHYSIOLOGY (n) - a branch of biology dealing with the study of how living things function