Flags for eyes
    This journal is brought to you by…

    This journal is brought to you by…

    • Mrs. Phipps 7th grade at Houston Middle
    • Mrs. Provine’s 7th grade class at Houston Middle
    • Ms. Taylor’s 7th grade class at Houston Middle
    • Ms. Kamphaus’ 4th grade class at Peru Catholic School in Illinois
    • Wyatt Elder in 3rd grade at Crosswind Elementary

    Flags for seals - general
    This journal is brought to you by…

    This journal is brought to you by…

    • Ms. Martin’s 3rd grade class at Hawkins Mill Elementary
    • Ms. York’s 6th grade class at Epiphany Catholic School in Illinois
    • Ms. Simpsen’s 6th grade class at Epiphany Catholic School in Illinois
    • Ms. Bolton’s 2nd grade class at St. Anne Highland
    • Ameerah Shaw in 3rd grade homeschool
    • Graydon and Arthur McCutcher
    • Crosswind Elementary Students
    • Anmol Nansiyani in 2nd grade
    • Leyann Abdul Fattah in 2nd grade
    • Teddy Johnson in 4th grade
    • Reese Regner in 3rd grade

    Weddell Seal’s Eyes

    My, what big eyes you have!

    What amazing eyes
    What amazing eyes! Credit: Dr. Jennifer Burns, MMPA permit #17411.

    It’s no secret that my favorite feature of the Weddell seal is its big, brown, beautiful eyes! And the seal pups’ eyes may just be the cutest ones I’ve ever seen!

    Weddell seal eyes are so big! They’re almost twice the size of human eyes! And what’s really cool about them is that they see on land and in the ocean.

    Have you ever opened your eyes underwater? It wasn’t very comfortable, was it? And you probably couldn’t see very well. Humans aren’t made to see underwater, but Weddell seals can see better underwater than on land! So what’s different about Weddell seal eyes?

    Let’s talk about eyes for a minute. The eye’s main job is to let light into it and then focus that light. Light is what allows you to see the world around you. Without light, you wouldn’t be able to see anything. That’s why you can’t see at night. This presents a problem for the Weddell seal – there is very little light under the ice. So how do they see underwater? Their eyes have some special adaptations that are very different from our eyes, which make them perfect for seeing in low light.

    The size

    There is a big difference between our eyes and Weddell seal eyes – the size! Weddell seals have big eyes! An adult human eye is about 24 mm in diameter, which is about 1 inch or 2/3 the size of a ping pong ball. An adult Weddell seal’s eye is about 50 mm – twice as big (relative to skull size)!

    Seal eye close up
    What can you see up close? Credit: Patrick Robinson, MMPA permit #17411.

    These big eyes allow Weddell seals to take in more light.

    The shape of the lens

    Another big difference between our eyes and Weddell seal eyes is the shape of the lens. The lens is inside the eye and its job is to focus light – just like the lens on a camera. Check out the diagram below. The black part is the lens. Do you notice a difference between the shape of the seal (pinniped) lens and that of a human?

    Eye comparison
    See how the different shapes of the lenses make a difference in how we see?

    The seal lens is very round, while the lens of a human is flattened and more oval-shaped.

    Well, why is this important?

    It comes back to light! Did you know that light bends? When light moves from one medium to another, it changes direction. Think about it like this – have you ever looked at a straw in a glass of water? It looks weird doesn’t it? That’s because light bends differently when it passes through water.

    Straw in water
    See how the straw is distorted in the water? Photo credit: Carrol Foster, Hot Eye Photography.

    The lens has to focus light onto the retina, which is at the back of the eye. When Weddell seals look through water, their round lenses will bend the light to focus the image on their retina. However, when looking through air, their round lenses bend the light so that its focal point is in front of the retina.

    The result? Seals see really well in water, but not as well in air.

    What else is different?

    Seals may be a bit color-blind. The photoreceptor cells on the retina that ‘see’ color are called cones. Seals only have two sets of cones, while humans have three. So seals may have a difficult time seeing a variety of colors. However, they are most likely sensitive to blues and greens, which is good, because those are the main colors in their habitat!

    Though the seals are missing cones, they have a lot of rods! Rods are a different set of photoreceptors that allow us to ‘see’ brightness. Since seals have so many, they can see very well at low light levels, which is great for seeing under the ice!

    One more thing… Seals also have silvery, reflective layer behind their retina called a tapetum. This lining helps reflect light back onto the retina. Basically, this doubles the amount of light that the rods can ‘see.’ What other animals might have this tapetum?

    Here you can see the reflection from the tapetum. Photo credit: Tim Knight.

    Many nocturnal animals have a tapetum. Have you ever seen an animal’s eyes shine when hit with a flashlight or the headlights of a car? What you are seeing is the reflection of the tapetum.

    Clever creatures!

    Not only are Weddell seal eyes adapted to seeing in low light, but they have a few tricks up their sleeve as well! Scientists believe that they hunt fish by ‘back lighting’ them. But how do they do that? They will dive deep and look up to see a fish’s silhouette against the lighter surface waters. That’s just another way Weddell seals use their amazing eyes!

    Sometimes Weddell seals look very sad – I thought this one was crying! But Dr. Burns reassured me that those aren’t tears! Weddell seals have a clear, protective mucus that covers their eyes. Scientists believe this washes away bacteria from the ocean water.

    Seal 'crying'
    Is this seal sad? Credit: Alex Eilers, MMPA permit #17411.

    Digging Deeper

    Have you ever heard of snow blindness? It’s something we have to be very careful about here in McMurdo. The direct rays from the sun and those that reflect off the snow and ice can hurt your eyes. It’s a bit like a sunburn – just on your eyes. It won’t actually make you blind, but it can be painful. To prevent this, we wear sunglasses or dark goggles out on the ice. Even humans that live in snowy environments, like the Inuit, have to protect their eyes.

    Check out this photo!

    Inuit wearing goggles
    Inuit wearing goggles made from caribou antlers with caribou sinew for a strap. Photo credit: Julian Idrobo.
    Photo credit: Julian Idrobo

    That got me thinking… I haven’t seen any seals wearing sunglasses, so how do Weddell seals protect their eyes?

    Weddell seals have corneas that can tolerate high levels of UV light. The cornea is a squishy membrane on the outside of your eye.

    So the light reflected off of the snow doesn’t give them any pain. That’s just another amazing feature about Weddell seals! They are much better adapted to living in this snowy environment than we are!

    Want to know more about eyes?

    Your eye is an amazing light capturing organ with many different parts – all working together so you can see.

    Diagram of the Eye
    Diagram of the Eye. Image credit: Kids Health.
    Image credit: KidsHealth

    • Your eye is an organ that captures and detects light.

    • When you look at an object, the light from it enters your eye through the pupil.

    • The iris changes the size of your pupil, depending on how bright the object is. If it is very bright, your pupil gets smaller. If it is darker, your pupil gets bigger. This allows your eye to take in more or less light.

    • The light then hits your lens. The lens focuses the light onto the back of your eye – your retina. Have you ever looked behind you at a movie theater? There is a stream of light coming from the projection booth. The lens of your eye works a lot like the lens of a movie projector. At the movies, the light goes through the lens, focusing the images onto the screen so that you can see the movie clearly. In your eye, the film screen is your retina!

    • The retina is a mass of photoreceptors called rods and cones, which are light-sensitive. They change the light signals into electrical signals, which are carried to the brain by the optic nerve.

    • Your brain interprets the electrical signals to figure out what you are seeing.

    Pretty cool, right?



    Sue Tonys

    Alex, We are studying the eye. Humans have 6 muscles and
    cows have 4. How many muscles do the Weddell Seals have in each eye? Also, where are their tear ducts located?
    Sue Tony and St. Philomena 8th Grade

    Joanna Hubbard

    Hi Alex,Any luck finding the cache in the Chapel of the Snows for the travel bug bottle? Let me know if you have already dropped it off there and I'll update the status on the geocaching website!

    Alex Eilers

    Hi Sue,
    Great question! Thanks so much for your interest! We've just had a good bit of discussion about seal eye muscles here in the lab. Here's what the scientist think.

    External eye muscles: 7
    Four to control movement up and down and side to side
    One to pull the eye back
    Two for rotational purposes

    Inside the eye there are two, to control the movement of the iris,

    As for the tear ducts, they are located in the same place ours are.

    Thanks again for your question!

    All the best!

    Ms. Alex


    Alex Eilers

    Hey Joanna,
    Sorry it has taken me so long to respond. Your geo cache is attached to the 'troll' under the bridge.

    The bridge is located between Crary and 155.

    BTW - there was another one already there.

    I will try to attach a picture in the e-mail.

    Do you want me to take it when I leave?


    Janet Warburton

    Oh so fun! I'm glad Joanna's bug made it to Antarctica. I want to go geocaching there -- that would be the ultimate :)

    Alex Eilers

    I know!!!
    And the good news is... the bug is on the move. I noticed just the other day it is gone. Hopefully to another continent.

    Time is going so quickly!!!