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UNCW Research Team Embarks on NSF-Funded Antarctica Expedition to Study Climate Change Impact on Seals

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

A UNCW team of researchers from the Department of Biology and Marine Biology is headed to Antarctica for two expeditions in May 2022 and May 2023 to study crabeater seals, one of the most abundant marine mammals on the planet.  

Dr. Michael Tift, professor of biology and marine biology, is the co-principal investigator for the research, Effects of a Changing Climate on the Habitat Utilization, Foraging Ecology and Distribution of Crabeater Seals,” which aims to learn more about the well-being of crabeater seals as they adjust to their rapidly changing environment.  

“Crabeater seals can serve as sentinels for Antarctic environments and can provide information on the overall status of entire ecosystems,” said Dr. Tift. “We do not know yet how the crabeater seals are responding to the loss and movement of sea ice, but we hope these expeditions will allow us to learn more and predict future changes based on their habits.”

Funded by a three-year National Science Foundation grant totaling more than half a million dollars, the crabeater seal research will allow the team to study the movement patterns, diving behavior, feeding behavior, and distribution and abundance of the crabeater seal. They will be able to compare the data they collect with research gathered from the region 20 years ago.

For decades, the western Antarctic peninsula – the northernmost part of the continent – has experienced some of the most severe climate changes in the world, causing the loss and movement of sea ice. Sea ice is a critical habitat for crabeater seals’ main source of food, which is not crab like their name implies, but small shrimp-like crustaceans called krill that are about the size of a paper clip. Krill also sustains other large-breed populations like penguins and whales.

To eat, the crabeater seal scoops a mouthful of ocean water filled with krill and pushes out the water through an intricate sieve-like tooth structure that keeps the krill in and filters the water out. As the sea ice melts and moves, krill is becoming less plentiful in the food chain, causing the seals to have to expend more energy and travel further distances to find their food. These 1,000-pound mammals rely on krill for more than 90% of their diet.  

Scientists on the expedition include principal investigator Dr. Luis Huckstadt, a UNCW adjunct professor and senior lecturer at University of Exeter; co-PI Dr. Dan Costa from the University of California Santa Cruz; Arina Favilla, a Ph.D student also from UCSC; and two UNCW students: Anna Pearson, who defended her M.S. degree while in quarantine for this trip and who will begin collecting data from this trip to use for her doctoral work in the Tift Lab; and Zaahir “Zaaz” Santhanam, who will defend his honor's thesis that he completed in the Tift Lab while quarantining in Chile for this trip and will also celebrate successfully graduating from UNCW with dual majors in marine biology and political science while on the excursion.  

“Going back to the peninsula is something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time,” said Dr. Huckstadt, who has been to Antarctica 10 times and is a native of nearby Chile. “No matter how many times you go, it is a mesmerizing experience for everyone. The sounds, the smells, the live experience—it is always majestic.”

Dr. Huckstadt, who will captain a high-powered drone during the excursion to gather valuable aerial views and data, said the drone footage will help them estimate the body mass of the seals.

“We should be able to determine how well they are doing. Are they losing weight or gaining weight? The ice conditions are so different between the north and south that we predict the northern seals aren’t doing as well because it is harder to forage,” Dr. Huckstadt said.

After spending some time in quarantine in San Franciso due to COVID-19 restrictions, the team has moved on to Chile for two more weeks of quarantining and prepping for the trip before boarding the research ship. They also have plans for a community outreach project before they return to the U.S.

“We are hoping to visit schools in Chile to teach underprivileged students about the science we are doing,” Dr. Huckstadt said. “Despite the proximity, most of these kids in the local population of Punta Arenas will never visit Antarctica. We can help them understand the importance of this continent to the entire planet and use this opportunity to get them interested in science.”

The team is also planning a strong outreach program in the U.S. that includes collaborating with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to develop a curriculum about Antarctica, seals and climate change; teaming up with the UNCW MarineQuest program; and efforts to promote scientific education in U.S. classrooms.

-- Krissy Vick

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Crabeater seals on an ice floe

Crabeater seals. Credit: Dr. Luis Huckstadt, National Marine Fisheries Service permits 87-1593 and 87-1851-00