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New technology has allowed an international team including UK scientists from University of St Andrews and British Antarctic Survey to witness for the first time the behaviour of the southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) and how it relates to its physical environment. Small sensors were attached to 85 seals to track their movements and collect data about their marine environment. Results are published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The seals were tagged at the islands of South Georgia, Kerguelen and Macquarie in the Southern Ocean, and at the western coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. The data from the seals was transmitted back to land via satellite and shows that elephant seals adopted different strategies to find food.

The Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrews University led the research. Author Mike Fedak says, “These data are really exciting. This new technology has allowed us to see where the seals go and understand their behaviour in the context of different characteristics of water in the Southern Ocean. The majority of animals from South Georgia fed within the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, but seals from other locations had a very different strategy, and visited colder waters nearer the continental shelf.

He added, “This approach helps us to understand current population trends, where the animals forage and predict the availability of food under various climate change scenarios.”

Dr. Mike Meredith, Head of the Atmosphere and Ocean Group at British Antarctic Survey says, “The Southern Ocean is the hardest place in the world to obtain oceanographic data, especially during the wintertime. The seals acted as ‘samplers’ to collect data from deep seas that we couldn’t ordinarily access due to their remoteness and harsh environments. Understanding how these animals respond to their environment is fundamental in predicting how they may respond to climate change and the consequent shifts in ocean circulation and ice dynamics.”

Source : British Antarctic Survey

August 9, 2007 11:53 PMBiology

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