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Animal Life

Fur seals on a beach at South Georgia

What is the latest thing you have discovered?

There are a 180 scientists here so there should be 180 answers to the question! The latest discovery that all the newspapers followed up was finding out why many of the animals that live in the sea off the Antarctic are so large. There are sea spiders that are 30 cm across and animals that look just like a wood louse and that you can hardly fit into one hand. These large animals have been observed for some time, and scientists believed their size was a physiological response to cold. The latest work shows that the size is due to the high oxygen content in the water. Cold water contains more dissolved gases than warm water and by comparing animals from a range of habitats around the world (from polar waters which are the coldest on Earth, to the Tropics and places like the Black Sea) the scientists found that the oxygen content was the deciding factor. This also helps explain why fossil butterflies were so large. The largest lived at a time when the oxygen content of our atmosphere was higher.

What types of animals are there in the Antarctic?

The animals in Antarctica are whales, seals or seabirds. This is because much of the food in Antarctica is in the sea (since even though the sea is cold it isn't as cold as the land) and so these are the only kinds of animals that can get enough food. The ice doesn't have much on it that can be eaten so there are no land animals. This means that the richest places for wildlife are on the edges of the Antarctic - and close to the sea!

What animals did you see?

I've just come back from Bird Island - a small island (4 km long by 1 km wide) just off the north tip of South Georgia. We have big fur seal colonies there - and in December have about 200,000 animals on the island. A few elephant seals also breed on Bird Island, but not very many .. though we do see a few elephant seals which come to rest on the beaches during the summer. Then we have loads of penguins - macaroni penguins and gentoo penguins in colonies on different parts of the island. We have some king penguin visitors but only ones that come out to moult (none that breed and have chicks).

We have albatrosses breeding all over the island too - wandering albatrosses with a wingspan of 2.5 metres!! as well as smaller albatrosses - grey-headed albatrosses and black-browed albatrosses. Then there are other kinds of birds too - skuas, giant petrels, smaller petrels and prions.

On my way into Bird Island, on one of the ships, we watched for whales and dolphins. I saw some hourglass dolphins (a very pretty looking dolphin) and some southern right whales. I also saw some beaked whales, but they only surfaced a couple of times, so I didn't get a good enough look to know for sure what they were!

Which animals have you seen?

I was based on Bird Island for the summer. This is a small island (4km x 1km) off the north tip of South Georgia. Bird Island is absolutely full of animals though and I don't think I could have gone anywhere in the Antarctic and seen more. The base where we live is right in the middle of an Antarctic fur seal colony. We also have southern elephant seals come out onto the beaches sometimes, and in winter they see leopard seals (though I left before those arrived). Then nearby we have gentoo penguin colonies and macaroni penguin colonies, and heaps of other breeding birds - albatrosses, giant petrels, skuas, prions, storm petrels, diving petrels, sheathbills and I'm probably forgetting something too!!

How many of each species did you survey?

My work was based on the Antarctic fur seals. We have a small beach near to the beach which we work on and keep track of all the breeding seals there. There are about 20 males on the beach at any time - although they fight each other for these places and so about 100 males will get these places over the breeding season. Then about 500 females have pups there. We mark these pups and record who has had a pup when and where - which keeps us pretty busy!

Have you ever encountered any dangerous species?

No, not in the Antarctic. Polar bears live in the Arctic. But killer whales and leopard seals are dangerous for man and especially for other marine animals.

Have any animals fallen through thin ice?

I have not seen any.

What types of animal habitat did you see?

I'm not sure what you mean here. Mainly, the island is composed of rocky beaches - where the fur seals haul out onto the land. Then there are some rocky outcrops where the gentoo penguins seem to stay. The macaroni penguins seem to colonise fairly steep rocky cliffs. Much of the island is covered in tussac grass - big lumps of grass. The fur seals like to go further up the slopes to the grass later in the season. The albatrosses nest in among the higher parts of the tussac - preferring the steep parts (possibly to get away from the seals). Then some of the smaller birds nest in cracks in rocky cliffs or in holes in the shingly ground higher up the peaks.

What was the biggest land animal you saw?

Definitely a southern elephant seal. These are huge - adult males get up to 5.8 m long!!! You should look up a picture of them too as they have amazing noses!!

When we grow up some of us would like to be explorers and study wildlife. Is there much wildlife where you are?

Yes - I was based on Bird Island - which is a small island (about 4 km long by 1 km wide) off the north end of South Georgia. This island is absolutely full of wildlife. We live in the middle of a colony of fur seals - so from about the middle of October the male fur seals come up onto the beaches followed soon by the females until the beaches are full of fur seals. They make a lot of noise and often keep us awake at night. As well as fur seals, there are breeding albatrosses (huge seabirds), penguins and lots of other species on the island.

Do you use huskies to get around any more in the Antarctic?

No. We never had huskies on Bird Island, but we did on the other bases. However, there was some concern that the huskies might have diseases which they would transmit to the wildlife (as huskies were taken to Antarctica with the first people so don't really belong there). It's thought that dogs can transmit diseases to seals (and this may have caused a lot of seals in the UK to die in the past). So the huskies were taken out of Antarctica, back to Canada where many of them originally came from.

Approximately how many seals live on the Antarctic?

I was never very good at those kinds of numbers!! We have about 3 million fur seals in and around South Georgia. Many of the Antarctic Peninsula seals are not very well known though - crabeater seals, leopard seals, Weddell seals, Ross seals, etc. We really don't know their numbers very well - and both the American Antarctic programs and the UK programs are studying this.

Why do baby seals have fur when they are born?

The Antarctic is pretty cold. On Bird Island which is the warmest UK base in the Antarctic - fur seals are born in temperatures of below zero. They need this fur to help keep them warm. Sometimes when it rains I think even the fur doesn't help them that much though as they can look very wet and cold!

How fast can a grown up seal move on land?

Pretty fast - a fur seal (which is like a sea lion and can tuck its hind flippers underneath it) can probably go faster than you over 10 metres or so. They tend not to run much further than this without stopping. True seals (which can't tuck their hind flippers under them) can't go so fast, but elephant seals have a funny wriggle like a caterpillar (called a metachronal rhythm).

What do penguins and seals eat and how do they get their food?

Mainly they eat krill, and they have to swim for their supper. They both swim out from Bird Island - the seals go about 100 km out - to get their krill.

What is the largest seal you have ever seen?

Definitely a southern elephant seal. These have the most amazing noses - I hope you have a book you can have a look at them in!!

Are there any seal breathing holes near your camp?

No, Bird Island doesn't get surrounded by ice the way the islands further south do. We have icebergs during the summer - some of which come right into the bay that we live by.. and the seals like to climb onto these and roll around, but we don't have the ice holes that Weddell seals are found by.

What is the oldest a seal can live in the Antarctic?

I'm afraid I'm not sure about other species - but an Antarctic fur seal might live to about 25 years old.

Are there any insects living in Antarctica?

Certainly. The popular names for these insects (which have three pairs of legs) are springtails. They are typically 2 mm long and weigh 20 micrograms. There are also mites, which are not strictly insects, because they have four pairs of legs. These may be smaller (more like a pinhead 1 mm in diameter), and are a little heavier than a springtail. The lion of the Antarctic is an orange/red mite, called gamasellus racovitzi. This animal is a carnivore and eats other mites and springtails! All these animals can withstand very low temperatures and this is why they can survive.