Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Seal Bulls in the Service of Science

Elephant Seals send Scientific Data from the Antarctic to Bremerhaven via Satellite Transmitter

“Gustavo” is an imposing bull always in search of the best feeding grounds. The elephant seal weighing 3 tons and measuring 4 metres in length belongs to a group of 14 animals that serve researchers of the Alfred Wegener Institute as scientific assistants since recently. At the beginning of the Antarctic winter - from mid-March to the end of April - the mighty elephant seal bulls were tagged with state-of-the-art satellite transmitters at the Dallmann Laboratory on King George Island. In the coming months marine biologists Dr. Joachim Plötz and Dr. Horst Bornemann can now follow from their desk in Bremerhaven where the animals migrate, where they find prey at what depth and under what oceanographic conditions the food supply is exceptionally good in the Southern Ocean.

“We have just returned from the Antarctic Peninsula and still have fresh impressions of the incredible experience when you have numerous elephant seal bulls with their loud deep roar in front of you and imagine attaching a satellite transmitter the size of your palm to some of these huge creatures,” Joachim Plötz describes a not entirely everyday situation even for the experienced seal researcher. Every year from March to April the males of the only reproduction colony of the Southern elephant seal in the Antarctic come to the South Shetland Islands, a group that also includes King George Island, for moulting. The scientists from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in the Helmholtz Association took advantage of this narrow time window to furnish some of the animals with transmitters that operate using the satellite-aided ARGOS location system. Once moulting is over after three weeks, the bulls go back to their migratory life and do not return to land until six months later to mate with the females in the Antarctic spring.

During the annual migrations to their oceanic feeding grounds elephant seals cover thousands of kilometres. They dive down to depths of over 2000 metres and remain under water for periods of over an hour. When a seal with a transmitter dives, it collects data - even under the ice - and then appears on the surface again to breathe after some time. While it breathes fresh air, the recorded data package is sent to a satellite that passes on the signals received. With a little luck the transmitter will continuously transfer data for a year. When the next moulting takes place, the wonder of microelectronics developed by the Scottish Sea Mammal Research Unit will then fall off. Immediately after evaluation the measured data from this German-Argentinian-South African joint project will be made available to other world data centres via the Publishing Network for Geoscientific & Environmental Data (PANGAEA) at the Alfred Wegener Institute and used by various international cooperative scientific ventures.

During the extended travels through the Southern Ocean the transmitters not only send the geographic position and diving depth of the respective seal, but at the same time data on the temperature and salt concentration of the body of water through which the animal is swimming and thus important physical parameters from which, for example, conclusions can be drawn on the currents in the ocean. “Elephant seals mainly feed on fish and squid,” Plötz's colleague Horst Bornemann explains why the researchers can draw conclusions regarding the spatial and temporal distribution of particularly productive zones in the Southern Ocean based on seal migrations. “They lead a nomadic life in the ice desert of the Antarctic Ocean and are always looking for regions with ample prey. Based on seasonal changes in the migration behaviour of seals, we thus obtain indications of when, where and at what depth exceptionally high numbers of fish and squid occur and with what oceanographic conditions a good supply of food correlates.”

Even though the transmitters can hold out for a year, the data in the coming months are especially sought after. During this period the Antarctic winter prevails, the Southern Ocean is covered with ice and continuous measured data, particularly from the winter months, are rare. “Research vessels cannot sail in the Antarctic Ocean at this time. Our seals,” say Plötz and Bornemann full of conviction, “are therefore genuine pioneers of research.”

Notes for Editors:

Your contacts at the Alfred Wegener Institute are Dr. Joachim Plötz (phone +49 471 4831-1309; e-mail: and Dr. Horst Bornemann (phone +49 471 4831-1862; e-mail: Your contacts in the Communication and Media Department are Ralf Röchert (phone +49 471 4831-1680; e-mail: and Folke Mehrtens (phone +49 471 4831-2007; e-mail:

The Alfred Wegener Institute conducts research in the Arctic, Antarctic and oceans of the high and mid latitudes. It coordinates polar research in Germany and provides major infrastructure to the international scientific community, such as the research icebreaker Polarstern and stations in the Arctic and Antarctic. The Alfred Wegener Institute is one of the sixteen research centres of the Helmholtz Association, the largest scientific organisation in Germany.

Margarete Pauls | idw
Further information:

More articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation:

nachricht Invasive Insects Cost the World Billions Per Year
04.10.2016 | University of Adelaide

nachricht Malaysia's unique freshwater mussels in danger
27.09.2016 | The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

All articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

First results of NSTX-U research operations

26.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

UCI and NASA document accelerated glacier melting in West Antarctica

26.10.2016 | Earth Sciences

Ice shelf vibrations cause unusual waves in Antarctic atmosphere

25.10.2016 | Earth Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>