When it comes right down to it, the Weddell seal population study involves a lot of time focusing on Weddell seal pups. How many Weddell seal pups are born in the Erebus Bay Antarctica study area each year, how much some of those pups weigh at birth and weigh when they are weaned, how much time is spent by Weddell pups swimming in the water during the nursing period, and how many pups survive and return to have pups of their own, are vital data gathered by the Weddell seal population study research field team.
During the nursing period Weddell pups, like the one in the photo below by Weddell seal population project field team researcher Jesse DeVoe, are frequently visible on top of the sea ice and are accessible to the researchers. This accessibility makes it possible for population researchers to tag the seal pups soon after birth with small identifying tags, and determine how many pups are born each year in the Erebus Bay study area.
And this year has been a great one for Weddell seal births. So far in the Erebus Bay Weddell seal population study area, "the population produced over 580 pups this year making it another in a series of high-production years," says Montana State University ecologist Jay Rotella. Jay Rotella and Bob Garrott, professors at Montana State University, and Don Siniff, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, are the lead scientists on this National Science Foundation funded Weddell seal population study project.
Weddell pups are born on top of the sea ice. At birth they are covered with a soft lanugo coat that does not provide adequate insulation in the cold Antarctic sea water. The pup in the photo below by Weddell seal population project field team researcher Jessica Farrer is very young and still wearing its lanugo.
Over the next several days after birth, the pup's lanugo coat will be replaced by a coat that is better suited to life in cold water, as with this pup in the photo below by Weddell seal population project field team researcher Darren Roberts.
Usually when the pups are one to two weeks old they will begin to swim with the encouragement and assistance of their moms. To ready their pups for life in the ocean world, Weddell moms spend a lot of time in the water with their pups as the Weddell pups begin to swim.
In this wonderful underwater video, Antarctic diver, imager, and musician Henry Kaiser, working with Weddell seal project B-470, captures the playful behavior of a Weddell pup swimming with its mom beneath the surface of the sea ice.
Over the remaining week or two of the 2012 pupping season in the Erebus Bay study area, the Weddell seal population study research field team will continue to look for new pups in the study area.
The B-009 research field team members will complete surveys of the entire population of Weddell seals in the Erebus Bay study area, and take final weights on a limited number of pups, before the pups are weaned and left by their mothers to fend for themselves as the sea ice begins to melt with the approaching Antarctic Summer.