Taking the Measure of Seals and Those Who Study Them

An undergrad tests her stamina on a frozen continent
The Oregon State research team works on a Weddell seal. Markus Horning places telemetry equipment on its back, while Mee-ya Monnin records biological data. Allyson Hindle and John Skinner are preparing the seal for photogrammetry (photography for computer analysis), while veterinarian Rachel Berngartt monitors the seal.  (Photo: Henry Kaiser)

With Mount Erebus as a backdrop, an Oregon State research team works on a Weddell seal. Markus Horning places telemetry equipment on its back, while Mee-ya Monnin, right, records biological data. Allyson Hindle and John Skinner are preparing the seal for photogrammetry (photography for computer analysis), while veterinarian Rachel Berngartt, second from left, monitors the seal. (Photo: Henry Kaiser)

In Antarctica, when you sedate a 1,000-pound Weddell seal, it can take a while for the animal to settle down. Before the drug takes effect, the seal might raise its head, flex its 9-foot-long body or even attempt an ungainly crawl toward an opening in the sea ice. Keeping it away from such holes is important. If it were to dive before drifting into unconsciousness, it could drown.

During a research trip to Antarctica last year, Mee-ya Monnin was concerned about seal movement for another reason. She was taking photographs for a research project and needed the animals to be still. When properly composed, her photos would become the basis for a physical check-up of sorts.

This Oregon State University undergraduate from Snohomish, Washington, has developed a method for turning seal pictures into a computer model that calculates the surface area and volume of the animal. By combining those measurements with other information — weight, age, internal and external temperatures, reproductive status and thickness of the seal’s blubber layer — an Oregon State research team is establishing a reliable baseline for monitoring seal health in the future. Leading the project are OSU marine mammal scientist Markus Horning, Jo-Ann Mellish of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Allyson Hindle of the Harvard Medical School. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation.

For Monnin, a senior in OSU’s Fisheries and Wildlife Department and University Honors College, the chance to do science in Antarctica was about more than traveling to a beautiful place and pursuing a lifelong passion for marine mammals. It was a test. It was a chance for this self-described “strong, independent individual” to see what she was made of.

The Weddell seal research team, known as B470, surveys a seal at the base of Mt. Erebus, the world’s southernmost active volcano.  (Photo: Henry Kaiser)

The Weddell seal research team, known as B470, surveys a seal at the base of Mount Erebus, the world’s southernmost active volcano. (Photo: Henry Kaiser)

“Everybody knows why you’re there in terms of being passionate,” she says. “That’s pretty common. The important thing isn’t just the desire. It’s to prove that you’ve tested that desire and you’re still interested.”

Fear of Freezing

Her first real hurdle came during a survival training session known optimistically as Happy Camper. The goal is to help scientists prepare for the possibility of being caught out on the ice during a life-threatening storm. Even though she knew it was an exercise, Monnin feared she might freeze to death. “I really believed that I wasn’t going to make it. I thought I was going to die. The instructors leave you alone your first night. You know it’s going to be cold down there, but do you really know? Can you really conceptualize how cold it’s going to be? I was sure I was going to be a popsicle. I’d be dead. There was just no way.”

It wasn’t the first endurance test she had passed. As an intern with the U.S. Navy’s Marine Mammal Program in San Diego, she had chopped frozen fish to feed dolphins and sea lions and scrubbed docks on her hands and knees. Her favorite, though, was pressure-washing the sea lion pens. “The only thing that smells worse than wet, liquid sea lion feces is evaporated particles at 120 degrees Fahrenheit floating in the air and in your face,” she laughs.

During the austral summer, Weddell seals are often found sunbathing on the surface of the seasonally frozen sea ice. (Photo: Henry Kaiser)

During the austral summer, Weddell seals are often found sunbathing on the surface of the seasonally frozen sea ice. (Photo: Henry Kaiser)

Monnin attributes her determination to several sources: her scuba-diving father who brought brilliant underwater photos from the world’s oceans back to his family; her three years in a South Korean middle school (her mom grew up in South Korea) where she gained hard-won study habits; her independent streak, which she has learned to dampen in the interests of teamwork.

“Yes, I have the desire, but I’ve tested it with every single internship and opportunity I’ve gotten, and I’m still just as dedicated now as I was in the beginning,” she adds.

Seal Survival

Oregon State’s breadth in marine sciences made the university a natural fit for her. Now, as she prepares to graduate in June, Monnin is writing a technical paper about her modeling methods (described in her blog and shown briefly in a video).

She also thinks about what’s at stake for Weddell seals. Like penguins and whales, this southernmost member of the seal family is a mainstay of the Antarctic ecosystem. Climate changes already impinge on the continent’s ice and precipitation patterns, and as habitats respond, scientists need an accurate way to evaluate the impacts on wildlife.

“We are creating the actual baseline (for seal health),” Monnin explains. “The baseline tells us how much energy they are expending. In the future, we’ll be able to see if those animals are under stress.” Since energy expenditure is a health indicator, measuring it may tell scientists if seals are struggling to survive in a changing environment.

“The assumption has been that if you adapted to life on the ice, it’s not really challenging for you to survive there,” she says. That may not be true any longer.

Mee-ya Monnin lubricates a feeding tube, which she will use to insert a pill containing a temperature transmitter into a seal's stomach. (Photo: Henry Kaiser)

Mee-ya Monnin lubricates a feeding tube, which she will use to insert a pill containing a temperature transmitter into a seal’s stomach. (Photo: Henry Kaiser)

After spending six months on the ice in 2012, Monnin returned for a second season with Horning’s team in 2013. She learned to make her process more efficient by taking photos more quickly. Instead of hurrying just after a seal had been sedated, when it might still be active, she waited for other researchers to complete their tests of the animal’s status. Monnin positioned four cameras outside the clear plastic tent (affectionately called “the onion”) in which the research team worked. At a signal from the team, the sides of the tent were peeled away, and Monnin started taking photos. She reduced photography time from more than 15 minutes on average to less than two.

“Being down on the ice, you are physically and mentally challenged in every possible aspect,” she says. “You learn to work as part of the group. When I’m coming up on a deadline, it’s a hard deadline. There are bigger consequences for other people on the line, not just for me.”

Rachel Berngartt, veterinarian, takes an oral culture from a Weddell seal. (Photo: Henry Kaiser)

Rachel Berngartt, veterinarian, takes an oral culture from a Weddell seal. (Photo: Henry Kaiser)

After graduation, Monnin plans to take time to consider her next steps. Now that she has received the Antarctic Service Medal (give by Congress to people who spend 10 to 30 days below 60 degrees south latitude), another test on the southern continent isn’t out of the question.

Editor’s note: All work presented here was conducted in accordance with all applicable animal welfare guidelines. All research presented on this website was conducted under permit # 15748, 1034-1854 issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service, Antarctic Conservation Act 2012-003, 2007-007, and all required institutional permits from participating institutions.

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