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Elephant Seals - UNSPLASH

When elephant seals become animal oceanographers


Antarctic Ocean: On Kerguelen Island, elephant seals are being fitted with sophisticated data collection devices to gather vital ocean information only they can obtain that helps scientists predict climate change and the future of our oceans, and study the seals themselves.

Around 40 elephant seals are painlessly fitted with the devices in moulting season, which lasts throughout January and February, by members of the Animal-Borne Ocean Sensors (AniBOS) network team. Once the devices, which cost roughly E7000 each, are fixed to the elephant seal’s new hair and it is swimming in the Antarctic Ocean, it will send information from around 80 deep dives daily.

AniBOS uniquely integrates oceanography with biology and is an emerging network of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), a programme led by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC-UNESCO).

As Dr. Clive McMahon of the AniBOS network, who has studied elephant seals for his entire career, explains, this data is essential. “If we know what’s happening in the High Antarctic Ocean,” he says, “we have a much better grasp of global climate processes. Obtaining high latitude observations is critical. Elephant seals can dive up to 2000 meters and have the fantastic ability to access platforms like coastal shelves that other platforms are unable to easily reach.”

The AniBOS Ethical Advisory Board oversees the fitting of devices, which weigh roughly 0.1% of the elephant seal’s body mass. Dr. McMahon says that “we’re very confident what we’re doing will not harm the seal.”

For GOOS, which AniBOS is part of, the data gathered by elephant seal oceanographers is extremely valuable. As Emma Heslop, Programme Specialist for GOOS says, “The AniBOS network provides vital profiles of the upper ocean temperature and salinity in hard to reach areas such as the north and south polar regions. These profiles flow into weather models in real-time and are also used for climate change analysis. The information that elephant seals provide also enhances our knowledge of their behaviour, for example how, what and where they forage for food. This and the oceanographic data provide powerful tools for conservation and management.” 

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