Q&A with B-267

 Q&A with B-267

Outreach is an important part of NSF’s mission. Working in Antarctica and with “charismatic megafauna” such as the Weddell seal is ideally suited to get students of all ages excited about research. In addition to blogging about our Antarctic deployment and regularly posting pictures on Instagram, we selected 3 schools to communicate with while we are stationed in McMurdo: The Galvin Middle school in Wakefield, MA; the McKelvie Intermediate School in Bedford, NH; and Shanghai High School International Division in Shanghai, China (Picture 1: Ms. Atkinson’s 1st grade class in Shanghai)

Here are some of the questions we answered via email (with SHID) or “live” via Skype with the Galvin (Picture 2: Ms. Langlois’ and Ms. Cook’s 5th grade students in Wakefield during Skype session) and McKelvie schools (Picture 3: Allyson, Rachel, Kaitlin and Luis during 6am McMurdo time Skype session).

Why are you guys studying about Weddell seals?
Weddell seals have the amazing capacity to dive for very long periods of time. The longest recorded dive is around 96 minutes. As they are diving and holding their breath, oxygen levels in their body plummet. If you or I hold our breath for a minute (or a few minutes), we pass out because we run out of oxygen. We want to understand how Weddell seals can cope with oxygen deprivation. Perhaps, if we understand how they deal with lack of oxygen, we can develop strategies to help people who suffer from diseases associated with oxygen deprivation (such as heart attacks or strokes).

Why do the animals that live in Antarctica have thick skin?
Weddell seals have a thick layer of fat (called blubber) directly underneath their skin. The blubber protects them from the extreme cold here in Antarctica. It’s like they are wearing a nice warm coat!

Why can Weddell seals dive so deep?
Weddell seals love eating fish. When they are chasing their prey, they have to be able to follow it, even when the fish swim very deep in the ocean.

Why do penguins eat fish?
Fish are very abundant in the oceans surrounding Antarctica and a great source of energy. Penguins, just like Weddell seals, are very agile in water: they are great swimmers and can easily catch fish.

What is living in Antarctica’s deep ocean?
The oceans surrounding Antarctica are teeming with life. There are different types of seals (Weddell (Picture 4), Ross, Leopard, Crabeater), penguins (Emperor (Picture 5) and Adélie (Picture 6), whales (Minke and Orca), and many types of fish, including the infamous “ice fish” (the Antarctic Notothenioids) that have antifreeze protein in their bloodstream to prevent them from freezing as they swim the frigid waters. Other creatures living in oceans here are Antarctic krill, sponges, starfish, sea urchins, sea anemones, and sea spiders (Picture 7: sea spider in “touch tank” of Crary lab). We also have encountered 2 types of birds: big brown seagulls called skua (Picture 8) and very white snow-petrels (Picture 9).

Are you guys living in an igloo? Where are you guys living?
We live at McMurdo station, the largest base in Antarctica (Picture 10). It can accommodate more than a 1000 people. There are dorms and a galley (where we eat), a hospital and a store, gyms and a post office. There is a building dedicated to science and many warehouses where everything can be stored that we need to live and work. It is basically small town. Some of our colleagues live and work in camps on the ice, consisting of one or several fish huts (Picture 11). These huts are equipped with a radio, electricity (from a generator or solar power) and a heater.

How cold is Antarctica?
It can get very cold here, especially in the winter when there is no sun at all and it is dark all day everyday. Today it is actually not that bad. The sun is up all day and night (it will not set again until the end of February): Temperatures are expected to reach as high as –4°C (25°F). Temperatures in McMurdo have been as low as –50°C (–58°F) and as high as 8°C (46°F). The annual mean is –18°C (0°F); monthly mean temperatures range from minus –3°C (27°F) in January to –28°C (–18°F) in August. It also depends where you are: temperatures are much colder on the South Pole (today –38C, -36F). It is also very dry; there are areas (the “Dry Valleys”) where it never snows.

Why can they (Weddell Seals) breathe so long to 90 minutes?
That is exactly the question we are trying to answer. Weddell seals have evolved to be able to dive for such long periods of time so they can forage and catch their prey in the deep Antarctic oceans. Some examples of the physiological adaptations that characterizes the Weddell seals are their huge spleen that can store and release oxygenated red blood cells as the seal dives, the high concentration of another oxygen binding protein (myoglobin) in their muscles, and their ability to control perfusion to different organs. We are trying to identify the genetic and molecular adaptations that underlie the amazing capacity.

Do you dive in the water to look at the seals?
There are scientists who dive in the Ross Sea beneath the ice, but they are studying other organisms (like sea spiders). Weddell seals spend a lot of their time basking in the sun on top of the sea ice, making it much easier to find and study them (without having to dive). We do take video of the seals diving: Luis put his go-pro cam on a selfie stick in a diving hole and got some amazing footage. We will post some videos on Instagram.

How do you get there?
It takes a long time to get to Antarctica. First, I flew from Boston to Dallas (4 hour flight). There I hopped on a 17-hour flight to Sydney (Australia). From Sydney, I flew to Christchurch in New Zealand (5 hour flight). There, we boarded a military plane (C17) that flew us to McMurdo (another 6 hour flight). There is a landing strip (Pegasus airfield) not too far from McMurdo on the Ross Ice shelf. In early spring (when we arrived), it is still so cold that the runway is frozen solid, allowing a big plane like the C17 to land. As temperatures warm up, the runway becomes a bit more slushy, so only smaller planes (like a C-130 Hercules) can land. We will fly back to Christchurch on a C-130 (8 hour flight).

Are the seals cute?
They are very cute, especially the pups. And they are not afraid of humans so they sometimes come up to us to check us out. We have many great pictures and videos on our blog and instagram.

What clothes do you wear?
In Christchurch, we were issued “ECW” (Extreme Cold Weather) gear, including a really warm goose down coat (“Big Red”), warm coverall pants, and really warm boots. When we go out on the ice, we put on several layers of clothing underneath big red the coveralls. Because of the extreme cold here, it is important to cover all exposed skin, including on your face. So we put on hats and balaclavas to protect our face (especially when skidooing). We also put on warm mittens to protect our hands and sunglasses/ski goggles to protect our eyes.

What do the seals sound like?
Seals make all sorts of noises. When moms and their pups talk to each other, they sound a little bit like cows. They also make growling or snoring noises. When they are swimming, they sometimes make sonar-like noises that are so loud you can hear it and even feel it through the 2-meter thick sea ice. We will post some more video of seals making noises on our Instagram soon. You can also check out this website to hear Allyson’s colleague Markus do an impression of a seal.

Don’t forget to follow us on Luis’ blog, Rachel’s blog, Instagram, and Twitter. I also recommend taking a look at Michelle Brown’s Polar Trec (Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating) journal.

Team B267

NMFS permit 19439; ACA permit 2016-005; Photos by @manu_buys