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Spying on seals from space

28 July 2021

A first-of-its-kind research project will use data collected from high-resolution satellite images to help scientists gain insights into Weddell Seal populations in Antarctica’s Ross Sea region.


University of Canterbury Senior Lecturer Dr Michelle La Rue (pictured centre) with sleepy seals at Scott Base, Antarctica. Photo: Lucy Howell

The project, led by University of Canterbury Senior Lecturer Dr Michelle LaRue, of Gateway Antarctica in the College of Science, has been awarded $100,000 from the Antarctic Science Platform’s Opportunities Fund.

It involves analysing Weddell Seal population trends within the Ross Sea – using data collected by more than 300,000 citizen scientists by searching for seals on satellite images taken over the past decade.

The aim is to understand how seals in the region have fared in recent years, what environmental conditions may cause changes in their numbers, and what to expect as the climate changes.

Weddell Seals are an important Antarctic species found on the sea ice around the coast. This research is taking place in the Ross Sea region Marine Protected Area (MPA), the largest marine protected area in the world.

“Weddell seals are key predators that sit close to the top of the food chain and can be used as sensitive indicators of ecosystem health and vulnerabilities. What this research finds has direct consequences and implications for the management of the MPA,” Dr LaRue says.

“We have a duty to research to make sure we aren’t making irreparable changes to the ecosystem. This project adds to an amazing body of research already underway looking at the Ross Sea region MPA,” she says.

Antarctic Science Platform Director Associate Professor Nancy Bertler says they are very proud to support this important research.

“Dr LaRue’s highly innovative approach builds on a long and successful legacy of research in the Ross Sea, and will provide critical ecosystem insights on an unprecedented spatial scale. This work represents a step change from studying individual seal colonies and will set a new standard to provide policy relevant information to ultimately forecast how the ecosystem will respond to environmental change,” she says.

The research is in collaboration with Dr Dean Anderson from Manaaki Whenua and a NASA project called Antarctic marine predators in a dynamic climate, involving Dr Stephanie Jenouvier from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Dr Heather Lynch from Stonybrook University and Dr Marika Holland from the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in the US.

Dr LaRue is currently seeking a postdoctoral researcher to join her on the project.

About the Antarctic Science Platform

The Antarctic Science Platform is a $49M MBIE-funded research project that supports high priority research on Antarctica’s response to a warming world will impact the region,and the global earth system.

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