2012-2013 Science Planning Summaries
U.S. Antarctic Program - Science Support Section United States Antarctic Program United States Antarctic Program Logo National Science Foundation Logo
Collaborative Research: Thermoregulation in free-living Antarctic seals: the missing link in effective ecological modeling
A juvenile Weddell seal wears telemetry gear that will record dive effort and surface heat patterns to help researchers calculate the energetic costs of being a seal in McMurdo Sound. Photo Credit: J. Skinner. 

Program Manager:
Dr. Diana Nemergut


ASC POC/Implementer:
John Rand / Cara Sucher

Dr. Jo-Ann Mellish (Principal Investigator)

University of Alaska Fairbanks
School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences
Seward, Alaska

Supporting Stations:  McMurdo Station
Research Locations:  Delbridge Islands / Erebus Glacier Tongue

Project Description:
Thermoregulation is an important physiological component of life in polar regions, yet little is known about the energetic requirements for thermoregulation in either air or water for polar species. The Weddell seal of the Ross Sea provides a unique model to investigate typical costs and the limits of thermoregulation for polar phocids due to the wide range of sizes and body condition available from pups to adults. These research objectives are based on the varied demographics of seals in the Erebus Bay population (size and body condition), and the ability to track and recapture these seals, and collect data recorded from free-ranging animals. This is a valuable model system with results that may be adapted to other polar species. Data of this quality simply cannot be collected elsewhere in either polar region. Researchers will deploy and recover telemetry instruments on 40 Weddell seals in Erebus Bay. The instruments will record heat flux and temperature, foraging behavior, and swim speed of free-ranging seals. Each telemetered animal will be evaluated for overall health (by analysis of a blood sample and infrared thermography), body size, density, quantity of insulation (blubber depth measurements through imaging ultrasound) and quality of insulation (fat content of a blubber biopsy).

Field Season Overview:
The work will take place during two summer field seasons in and around McMurdo Station, at sea ice locations mainly in the vicinity of the Delbridge Islands and Erebus Glacier Tongue. The field effort will be based out of the Crary Lab with a fish hut on the sea ice for gear staging, shelter, and for operations requiring close support (e.g., processing biological samples). Six or seven participants will work in the lab and make day-trips to field locations. The sampling design involves capture and sedation of Weddell seals for health assessments and placement of telemetry gear and data recorders. Telemetered seals will have VHF and ARGOS transmitters attached for relocation and instrument recovery.

Deploying Team Members:

  • Allyson Hindle (Co-PI)
  • Markus Horning (Co-PI)
  • Henry Kaiser
  • Jo-Ann Mellish (PI)
  • Mee-ya Monnin
  • John Skinner

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Curator: Esther L. Hill PhD, Antarctic Support Contract   |   NSF Official: Alexandra Isern, Office of Polar Programs