In partnership with Zooniverse, Gateway Antarctica is seeking intrepid citizen scientists to help count Weddell seals in the Ross Sea – and contribute to their future.
Gateway Antarctica student and citizen scientist Stuart Grayson, set up the counting platform on the Zooniverse website, and volunteers are needed urgently.
Find out more below.
The Antarctic Air Day on 7 October saw Dr. Regina Eisert offering visitors a chance to become part of a research team as citizen scientists.
Setting the scene – In Antarctica two land-based automated cameras have captured images in two directions from points on Turtle Rock, Erebus Bay. The pictures were taken every 10 minutes over the periods from 27th November 2014 through to 1 January 2015.
- The goal is to figure out when seals go for their daily swim (and hence become invisible to remote detection, such as by using satellite images) and determine the daily activity cycle of the seals
By counting how many Weddell seals there are in the Ross Sea area of Antarctica, we can tell if they are being adversely affected by human fishing for toothfish, or by the ice melting away beneath them due to climate change.It is really hard to count seals – they live in very remote hard-to-reach locations where weather conditions are extreme, and they spend a lot of their time in the water. But during the summer they haul out onto the ice for some time each day. If we can count them then, and also understand the typical pattern of numbers out on the ice, then perhaps we can make reasonable estimates of the population.
- Zooniverse volunteers are asked to help count the seals in these pictures.
- The pictures span every hour of the day due to the 24-hour sun of the Antarctic summer and around 10,000 pictures were taken in total.
Meanwhile, back in Christchurch (7 October): – looking at all the pictures takes time and the researchers need a little help getting through them all.
Knowing that it is never too early to become a scientist, Dr. Eisert offered younger visitors a chance to try out their skills at seal counting at the Antarctic Air Day. Top prize winners secured not only bragging rights among their friends, but also a free family pass for the International Antarctic Centre, thanks to their generous sponsorship of the programme.
Want to play a part? – The Zooniverse project is live now and open to citizen scientists of all ages. Anyone can log onto website (see below) and lend a hand with the counting, and learn all sorts of cool Weddell seal facts.
There are also many cute photos of these photogenic animals.
The goal of the research is determine the daily activity cycle of the seals, who periodically disappear under the ice to feed, or perhaps just for a change of scene.
Dr. Eisert explains, “as one of the key top predator in the Ross Sea region, Weddell seals are vital sentinels for the state of the ecosystem. To monitor their population over the entire region, we need to use remote sensing by satellites or planes, but we can’t get accurate counts unless we know when the seals are present at the surface and what drives their activity cycles over a full 24-hour period: the angle of the sun, tides, or a combination of factors.”
- Accurate seal counts will help support conservation in the Southern Ocean by supporting the newly established Ross Sea region Marine Protected Area (MPA) that aims to protect the area from potential effects of fishing for toothfish. With Weddell seals assumed to be a major predator of toothfish, protecting their foraging areas was a key factor in designing the MPA.
- However, without knowing how many seals there are and whether their numbers are changing, we cannot determine whether the MPA is fulfilling its purpose.
- Reliable data on this key predator species will make an important contribution to monitoring the Ross Sea region and help meet New Zealand’s international obligations to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).
If you are interested in finding out more, or wish to be part of this research in support of New Zealand’s international commitments in the Antarctic, click here.