The Weddell seal population study field research team is now back in Antarctica, and moving quickly to get back out on the sea ice to continue their work. The 2013 field team consists of, from left to right, field research biology technicians Brandi Skone and Michael Yarnall, field team leader and PhD recipient Dr. Thierry Chambert (center), field reseach biology technician Joel Forrest, and PhD student and future field team leader Terrill Paterson.
Weddell project Co-Principal Investigator Bob Garrott will be joining the team in the next several days, weather permitting. We'll have a 2013 field team page up soon.
Before Weddell seal pups can be located and added to the extensive database of generations of Weddell seals born in the Erebus Bay study area, safe travel routes over the frozen ocean must be assessed and flagged by the B-009 field team in order to get to the numerous Weddell seal pupping colonies scattered throughout the study area.
These safe travel routes over the sea ice are marked with bamboo pole flags placed at regular intervals by the field team. Special care is taken to mark safe crossing sites for the snowmobiles where larger cracks in the sea ice are encountered. Here's video from a previous season of the B-009 Weddell seal field team spending a sunny day out flagging routes and assessing the sea ice:
The field team will use these flagged routes to regularly visit each of the Erebus Bay Weddell seal pupping colonies to tag all of the pups that have been born since the pupping season began. In addition to their focus on tagging all of the new pups, they will also replace missing or broken tags on Weddell seal adults. The team also will begin to conduct a series of seal population census surveys throughout the study area to determine how many seals returned to Erebus Bay this season.
Tagging all of the new Weddell pups born in the study area over the past several decades has generated a database that is unique in the field of population ecology. Weddell seals show strong fidelity to the areas of their own birth; and they return to these same areas to have their own pups. The researchers can trace the ancestry of Weddell seals in the Erebus Bay area over several generations. They know how many pups thousands of Weddell moms have had over their lifetimes, and whether those seal pups survived to return to the colonies to have pups of their own.
We'll have much more about the life history characteristics of these amazing animals and what the researchers have learned from studying this population of long-lived marine mammal in our blog posts to come. So please stay tuned!