Intrepid Seals In ‘Hats’ Do Important Science

Scientists come in all shapes and sizes. Most recently, they come in the form of seals with hats. Of course, the seals aren’t really wearing hats. But they really are seals doing science.

Science Seal with hat or ocean sensor attached - the seal helps scientists learn about Antarctica's oceans
Nobuo Kokubun (NIPR)

We learned more about these intrepid science seals in an article that we first saw on DesignTAXI. Oceanographers from Japan’s National Institute of Polar Research (NIPR) were looking to solve a unique problem. And so, they turned to a unique solution.

In a release, the scientists shared that “the continental shelves of Antarctica are one of the most biologically productive regions in the world’s oceans as a result of the large amount of nutrients generated by interactions between ocean, sea ice and ice shelf.” But “due to the difficulty of conducting oceanographic observations by ship… these cross-shelf water exchanges and their seasonal variations are not well understood.”

In short, Antarctica is a tricky area to study. Especially Antarctica’s ocean waters, as the region’s land ice can prevent ship travel. But while this truth is prohibitive to human exploration, it doesn’t stop our seals in hats. The hats the seals wear are actually CTD-Satellite Relay Data Loggers. CTD stands for conductivity, temperature, and depth. The sensors log this crucial ocean data and relay it to scientists via satellite.

Antarctic Circle Iceberg
Wikimedia Commons

And the mission worked. The science seals provided new data on these hard-to-reach areas. Researchers discovered that warm and low-salinity water appeared in Antarctica’s continental shelves during the autumn. This water became deeper as fall progressed. The winds during the season also created an ocean environment that brought in additional prey.

Overall, the researchers concluded that “the warm and low salinity water had positive effects on the seals’ foraging behavior. And that “the wind-driven physical process may enhance prey availability in the Antarctic coastal marine ecosystem.”

Weddell Seal in Antarctica. This type of seal can do science by helping scientists collect ocean data.
Wikimedia Commons

The investigation, detailed in the journal Limnology and Oceanography, showed great promise. It affirmed that seals with sensors could act as powerful tools to explore the otherwise inaccessible Antarctic continental shelves. The release shares:

Now that this has been demonstrated, the team wants to go further and estimate the amount of water and prey being transported onto the shelves by this wind- driven process. Ultimately, the researchers hope to be able to use these data to predict how the Antarctic coastal marine ecosystem is responding to the ongoing rapid changes in Antarctic sea ice.

There you have it. Multitalented seals in hats. The ultimate scientists.

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