What Are They Doing?
Weddell seals are one of the best studied seals and a classic example of adaptation to the extreme Antarctic environment. A large body size and thick blubber layer help them to stay warm both on and under the ice. Their streamlined shape, body oxygen stores, and collapsible lungs allow them to reach dive depths of 600 meters (almost 2,000 feet!) and remain under water for over an hour. However, they do not begin life with these advantages. Weddell seal pups are born on the sea ice with a small body size and almost no blubber.
The question is: What does it take for a Weddell seal to survive and successfully make the transition between two extreme environments – above and below the Antarctic sea ice – in only a matter of weeks? To answer this, Cal Poly scientists and a marine mammal veterinarian will venture to Antarctica to study the development of thermoregulation and diving in Weddell seals.
Where Are They?
While in Antarctica, the research team will be living at McMurdo Station, the U.S. Antarctic Science Center. McMurdo is the capable of housing up to 1,258 residents, the largest community in Antarctica. McMurdo Station is on Ross Island, a volcanic island (with the southernmost active volcano, Mt. Erebus) south of New Zealand in the Ross Sea. McMurdo Station has its own science labs, engineering centers, dormitories, galley (kitchen), and even a US post office.
Dr. Heather Liwanag is a comparative physiologist at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She is interested in the physiological adaptations of animals to their environment, and the evolutionary processes involved in those adaptations. Much of her research has focused on thermoregulation (the regulation of body temperature) and energetics (metabolic rates) in vertebrate animals, including seals, sea lions, and even lizards. Her current project is studying the development of thermoregulation and diving in Weddell seal pups in Antarctica.