Dozens of elephant seals recruited to be oceanographers

Dozens of elephant seals recruited to be oceanographers
·2 min read

The coldest oceans are home to some of the most valuable information about the future of the planet, but many parts of those oceans have been largely inaccessible for thorough study. But now, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has recruited a special group of marine scientists to gather the data — dozens of elephant seals.

The seals live on Kerguelen Island, a small French territory in the southern Indian Ocean that's just a stone's throw from Antarctica. The territory is so remote and its landscape is so harsh that it has been dubbed the "Desolation Islands," according to NASA, but elephant seals are among the species that thrive.

They're also one of the few species that can reach the underwater nooks and crannies that pack "vital ocean information," according to UNESCO. That's why the organization recruited their help to gather essential data for predicting climate change and the future of the oceans.

UNESCO said Tuesday that about 40 elephant seals are being fitted with lightweight devices — weighing roughly 0.1% of the elephant seal's body mass — that are attached to the seals' hair. Those devices will send data from the seals' roughly 80 daily deep dives back to researchers at the Animal-Borne Ocean Sensors (AniBOS) network team.

In a press release, AniBOS network member Clive McMahon, who has studied elephant seals throughout his career, said that the data they will gather is essential.

"If we know what's happening in the High Antarctic Ocean, we have a much better grasp of global climate processes," he said. "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 data will be analyzed by the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), a group led by some of the world's leading environmental agencies, including the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and the World Meteorological Organization.

Emma Heslop, a program specialist for GOOS, said in a press release that their research "provides vital profiles" of the ocean's temperature and salinity in regions that are traditionally difficult to reach around the planet's north and south poles.

"These profiles flow into weather models in real-time and are also used for climate change analysis," she said.

The gathered data will also be used to learn more about the elephant seals themselves.

"The information that elephant seals provide also enhances our knowledge of their behaviour, for example how, what and where they forage for food," Heslop said. "This and the oceanographic data provides powerful tools for conservation and management."

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