Cycle of life renews for seals
Having two seals pups born immediately in front of Scott Base in Antarctica is ‘‘really unusual’’, a professor of marine biology says.
The two weddell seal pups were spotted just a few hundred metres from Scott Base buildings, a busy road and a helicopter landing pad.
Seal mothers were known to abandon pups if humans disturbed them too much, said Dr Regina Eisert, of Gateway Antarctica at the University of Canterbury.
She guessed the mother weighed about 450 kilograms and looked to be in excellent condition.
‘‘If all goes to plan, she will nurse her pup for about 42 days and during this time will lose close to 200kg,’’ she said.
‘‘At the same time, the pup will quadruple its birth weight of about 25kg to 100kg and sometimes as much as 140kg.
‘‘They can grow so fast because weddell seal milk is exceptionally high in energy.’’
Newborn weddell seals were vulnerable to hypothermia because they had not built up fat reserves, she said.
Mothers typically stayed with their pups constantly for the first week or so.
When the pups were seven to 10 days old, the mother dived into the nearest hole in the ice and called her pup from the water.
‘‘Pups really do not like water at that age and it takes them a long time to take the plunge,’’ Eisert said.
‘‘A lot of the time, the pups fall in rather than choose to enter the water. They certainly bawl a lot when they go in,’’ she said.
The water is minus 1.9 degrees Celsius.
Eisert needed help with her research.
She and colleagues had uploaded about 10,000 photos taken every 10 minutes in late 2014 at the seal colony at Turtle Rock, about 12 kilometres north of Scott Base.
They needed help counting the seals in the photos to get an accurate estimate of their numbers, habits and daily rhythms.
‘‘Then can we tell if they are being adversely affected by human fishing for toothfish, or by the ice melting away beneath them due to climate change,’’ she said.
Visit zooniverse.org and search for weddell seal count to help.
Press journalists Will Harvie and Iain McGregor spent 10 days in Antarctica part of Antarctica New Zealand’s community engagement programme, which allows New Zealand media, artists and other non-scientists to visit Scott Base to learn and report on the work of scientists on the ice.