Clarifying Antarctic seal numbers with a NZ Post scholarship

27 June 2019

A Master of Geography student at University of Canterbury (UC) is one of four postgraduate students from across New Zealand to receive the NZ Post Antarctic Scholarship 2019.

  • Shanelle Dyer

    UC's Shanelle Dyer is another step closer to her dreams of researching and visiting Antarctica after winning a NZ Post Antarctic scholarship.

A Master of Geography student at University of Canterbury (UC) is one of four postgraduate students from across New Zealand to receive the NZ Post Antarctic Scholarship 2019.

Shanelle Dyer will use the scholarship to improve methods for counting Weddell seal numbers in the Ross Sea region Marine Protected Area (MPA) and to take her first trip to the ice later this year.

“I’m incredibly thankful and excited to be given this opportunity since it has been a dream of mine to visit Antarctica for so long. It’s a bit surreal to think about being somewhere so pristine and unlike anywhere else on Earth – it’s still sinking in,” she says.

Dyer’s keen interest in Antarctica started early.

“When I was nine, I had a teacher who was obsessed with penguins and read us books about Shackleton’s expeditions and the race to the South Pole – the interest just sat with me ever since. Then, studying geography at high school and UC only furthered my passion,” she says.

Dyer is interested in applying technology to conservation, for example designing new ways to monitor wildlife and habitats using remote sensing instruments such as drones and satellites. Supervised by UC scientists Dr Regina Eisert and Professor Richard Green, Dyer's thesis focuses on using artificial intelligence to count Weddell seals in survey images. By automating the detection of seals on land or sea-ice when they have temporarily left the water, and analysing these haul-out patterns, she hopes to address current spatial, temporal, and methodological limitations for monitoring polar wildlife.

Current monitoring methods, such as ground counts and satellite images, only provide information from a specific time and location. Since Weddell seal haul-out patterns vary so much daily, seasonally, and annually, failure to correct for this natural variation can result in quite large errors and inaccurate conclusions regarding the abundance and distribution of seals.

Weddell seals are one of the focal species for the Ross Sea region MPA. As the largest High-Seas MPA in the world, it represents a major breakthrough for marine conservation.

The science underpinning this MPA is assessed every five years, and the overall existence of the MPA will be reviewed in 2052. It is therefore critical that we develop new methods to ensure that we have accurate, effective, and cost-efficient means to address the MPA’s research priorities. Dyer is proud to say that her research is making a small but useful contribution to ensuring that the Ross Sea remains “protected, valued, and understood”.

Dyer’s work is a continuation of a project started in 2014, the Top Predator Alliance NZ programme established by Dr Eisert in 2013 to undertake the scientific research required to support the Ross Sea region MPA. Dr Eisert and Dyer also collaborate with Antarctica New Zealand to monitor Weddell seals at Scott Base, as part of an environmental impact assessment.

Dyer’s dream is to establish a research programme on conservation remote sensing in New Zealand.  She sees a huge benefit for wildlife and the environment - including in Antarctica.

“After my Master’s, I am hoping to do a PhD with international experts in this field and then bring that expertise back to New Zealand. We currently don’t have the necessary framework and expertise to harness this technology for our country. The great thing is that the methods and skills I am developing aren’t specific to Weddell seals or even polar wildlife, they can be applied to many different species and environments,” she says.

The annual scholarship, which aims to help young researchers enter New Zealand's Antarctic science community, was awarded on 17th June at the NZ Antarctic Science Conference 2019. Supported jointly by NZ Post and Antarctica NZ, the scholarship includes both a stipend and logistical support to conduct research in Antarctica.

Shanelle Dyer and Dr Regina Eisert would like to thank Antarctica NZ for supporting their work.

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