Elephant seals equipped with special satellite tags are helping researchers collate information about ocean conditions in the most inhospitable areas on the planet.
Researchers from the University of St Andrews in Scotland have been attaching non-invasive tags to elephant seals in a bid to understand the polar oceans. The tags measure the temperature of the water, the depth and the salinity. The tags detach from the seals each time they moult and are not thought to harm the seals in any way. Elephant seals are used as they travel vast distances in areas that are often inaccessible to humans making it possible to obtain vast amounts of data in areas that have never been studied before. They have also been recorded going as deep as 6000 feet which enables scientists to obtain a cross section of ocean conditions at different depths.
The project has been underway since 2004 and the team has built up a database of 400,000 environmental profiles making this one of the biggest oceanographic datasets ever recorded. On the 1st of June this data became publicly accessible due to the opening of a portal named Marine Mammals Exploring the Oceans Pole-to-Pole.
The tags were designed by the Marine Mammal research unit at the University of St Andrews and they periodically send ocean data, via satellites, back to St Andrews. One of the leading researchers, Dr Lars Boehme explained how they work, “The information sent back to us gives us details about the seal’s immediate physical environment. It’s like tweeting.”
The data is not only of interest to biologists as the information is also used by the Met Office similar bodies worldwide in order to predict weather conditions. Researchers stress that sustained observations are necessary in order to track changes in ocean conditions and so the seal tagging is still going to continue for the foreseeable future.