People power and satellites help UC scientists study climate impacts on Antarctic seals
A New Zealand-led international study of the crabeater seal population in Antarctica aims to understand environmental impacts on one of the southern-most mammals in the world.
Photo credit: Ursula Rack/UC
“We searched satellite photos for crabeater seals in the Weddell Sea, with help from over 2000 volunteers around the world covering an area of sea ice the size of Fiji,” says UC Gateway Antarctica scientist Dr Michelle LaRue, a lecturer of Antarctic Marine Science in UC’s School of Earth and Environment | Te Kura Aronukurangi.
This is the largest survey of sea ice in the Weddell Sea and the most broadly distributed study on crabeater seals in a single year. Working with Dr LaRue, lead author Dr Mia Wege, a post-doctoral researcher from UC Science’s School of Earth and Environment, now at the University of Pretoria, is a marine predator ecologist with a specific interest in seals and Antarctica.
“I study their behaviour, foraging ecology, diet, abundance and distribution. But really, seals are just the means to understand impacts of climate change on species living in extreme environments. We combined Google Earth-like imagery, volunteers and statistical modelling to figure out where crabeater seals are likely to be found in the Weddell Sea – a place that is likely refugia for ice-dependent species, as the climate continues to change,” Dr Wege says.
“We found that crabeater seal distribution overlapped mostly with Antarctic krill habitat. This is important because Antarctic krill is not only preferred prey for these seals, but also the vast majority of Antarctic predators. Krill are also a target species for fisheries in the Southern Ocean. Knowing crabeater seal distribution is valuable conservation information, particularly because a Marine Protected Area is currently being planned in the Weddell Sea.”