Page last updated at 06:34 GMT, Tuesday, 12 August 2008 07:34 UK

Seals uncover frozen sea secrets

Elephant seals
The sensors have been placed on 70 seals from four breeding colonies

Elephant seals are being used to help climate change researchers gather data previously locked beneath icy seas.

The animals have been fitted with sensors developed by a team from the University of St Andrews to assess the waters of the Southern Ocean.

The team created tiny transmitters that allows data about the physical features of the ocean to be fed back to them.

In the past, the impact of the freezing conditions on conventional technology made the area virtually impenetrable.

The university's Sea Mammal Research Unit created the small data logging transmitters to gather more information about the waters through which the seals swim.

The idea that these animals have become our partners in providing real time data about the state of our climate while helping us to understand their ecological requirements has captured the imagination
Prof Mike Fedak
St Andrew's University

Professor Mike Fedak, from the university's Gatty Marine Laboratory, said, "The Southern Ocean is a hotspot for climate research because its circulation is critical to understanding the earth's climate and its huge ice sheet is sensitive to climate change.

"Southern elephant seals are wide-ranging predators that roam all over the Southern Ocean, even under the sea ice in the wintertime - a time when conventional ocean observation methods are unable to gather data."

The instruments can measure temperature, pressure, and salinity and transmit data as well as seal positions to satellites when the seals surface.

From this, the researchers have said they are able to amass data for a vast range of previously inaccessible ocean, including areas deep within the sea-ice in winter while also learning about the animals themselves.

The new method has also enabled them to follow the yearly rise-and-fall cycle of sea ice production, and will help refine computer models of the Southern Ocean circulation.

'Climate predications'

Led by Dr Jean-Benoit Charrassin, a marine biologist at the Natural History Museum in Paris, researchers in France, the UK, Australia and the US have attached electronic dataloggers to 70 seals at the four most important breeding colonies of southern elephant seals.

The animals can dive as deep as 2km in search of food while ranging across much of the Southern Ocean.

Rudolph, a tagged elephant seal (SMRU)
The transmitters feed data about the ocean back to the researchers

Thanks to the technology, the only remaining area with limited coverage is the Pacific sector, which contains no islands for the seals to breed on.

Prof Fedak said: "I think this is an extremely exciting new approach for ocean observation which has now been extended to seals roaming the seas around both Poles."

The team behind the on-going MEOP project (Marine Mammals Exploring the Oceans Pole to Pole), which has equipped 100 seals of three polar species with oceanographic sensors, said the animals routinely send large quantities of near real-time information from the undersampled polar regions.

Prof Fedak added: "The MEOP animals have contributed over 35,000 observations from the polar seas in the past year, and I think it is really fantastic to see how large a contribution the animals can make, sending data from below the ice in near real time.

"The idea that these animals have become our partners in providing real time data about the state of our climate while simultaneously helping us to understand their ecological requirements has captured the imagination of biologists, oceanographers and the public."


SEE ALSO
Animal world's communication kings
01 May 07 |  Science/Nature
Islands seal numbers show decline
19 Jan 07 |  North East/N Isles
Elephant seals dive for science
21 Feb 06 |  Science/Nature

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