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!
VIDEO: LIFE IN THE ANTARCTIC
Learn about the extreme Antarctic conditions Weddell seals are adapted to live in. (2:20)
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.
VIDEO: INTRODUCTION TO THE RESEARCH PROJECT
Dr. Jo-Ann Mellish explains why the team is interested in studying polar seals. (1:56)
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.
WHO IS STUDYING SEALS?