Last season, it took us almost two weeks to get up and running. This year, we (led by our experienced field team leader Allyson) managed to complete all required trainings, obtain and prepare all our gear, and setup the lab in 3 days (which, we believe, is an unofficial record for McMurdo). Therefore, we were already able to venture out on the ice on the 4th day of our field season (Monday, October 24th). The weather was perfect (for Antarctica; cold but not too windy), ideal for what we anticipated would be a test run. As we were about to leave town, our friends from B009 (a group of scientists performing a census on the Weddell seal colonies in McMurdo Sound) called in to tell us there was a “hot potato” (our nickname for a recently deceased pup) at Hutton Cliffs.
Hutton, ~20 miles north of town, had provided us with great samples last season too, so we made our way from McMurdo over the sea ice and past Turtle Rock. When we arrived at Hutton and surveyed the colony, we discovered not one but two pups that had succumbed to the harsh environment.
Every year, between 300 and 600 pups are born in the colonies close to McMurdo and a small percentage of those pups do not make it, often because mom disappears. To shelter us from the elements while performing a careful necropsy, we set up a tent-like structure nicknamed “the onion”. Performing necropsies is not our favorite pastime but they provide an important and unique source of samples that will allow us to test our scientific hypotheses. The samples we collected that day were a great start.
The rest of the week was equally successful. On Tuesday, Luis and I went out to look for fresh placentas (a source of blood vessels that Allyson and Kaitlin can use to isolate and grow endothelial cells and smooth muscle cells, important cell types for regulating blood flow). Our first stop was at Turtle Rock. Luis walked up to the first seal we saw and found a recently delivered placenta. I thought he was joking when he pointed to the next animal (we both still were wearing all our gear, including helmet and full face mask so communication was a little tricky) but sure enough, a freshly delivered pup with the placenta still attached to its umbilical cord was snuggling up to its mom.
So right off the bat, we were able to collect quality samples from two placentas. Later that week, we witnessed a Weddell seal pup being born. As I was walking through the colony to look for a placenta, I noticed a Weddell mom going into labor. Within 15 minutes, a little baby seal was delivered (unfortunately, my cameras do not like the cold and I was unable to record the delivery). While Allyson and I waited for the placenta to make its appearance (which it did an hour or so later, time we spent in a nearby diving hut to stay warm), Luis and Kaitlin made their way to the Weddell seal colonies at Tent Island, Turks Head, and North Base of the EGT (Erebus Glacier Tongue). Their explorations were cut short by a mishap with Kaitlin’s skidoo, again reminding us that Antarctica can be a dangerous place. On Saturday, we were lucky enough to come across another seal in labor. This time, it was Allyson who alerted us on the radio that a pup was about to be born.
Less than four minutes later, a brand new Weddell seal pup saw the Antarctic sun for the first time, and this time, both mine and Luis’s cameras were rolling(video here). By the end of our first week, we were ahead of the curve with two necropsies and eight high quality placentas collected, and Allyson and Kaitlin managed to grow endothelial cells.
In other news, Kaitlin turned 25; we saw our first crabeater seal (unusual to see crabbies here – could be related to the sea ice edge being so far north this year); we were interviewed by a reporter from “the Antarctic Sun” (more about that later); Science cargo organized its world famous (in McMurdo) Halloween party; and our friend Rachel (from B-292, a team of Alaska-based scientists studying reproduction and molt in Weddell seals) arrived to help us collect biopsies from adult Weddell seals over the next few weeks. Our season is progressing quickly; one month to go!
NMFS permit 19439; ACA permit 2016-005