Seal Tracker In Water 2015 06 01
Image: Lars Boehme/University of St Andrews

A new portal launched today is opening up a decade's worth of information about the conditions of the iciest and most remote ocean regions – gathered with the help of an army of tracker-wearing seals!

Since 2004, several hundred southern elephant seals fitted with sensors created by scientists at the University of St Andrews have been doing what comes naturally: covering thousands of kilometres of their icy ocean habitat and diving to great depths in search of food. In the process, they've been transmitting crucial data back to scientists, providing them with a detailed look at parts of the planet that are not easily accessible to humans.  

“The fact that animals have collected the data is an interesting innovation in ocean observation. But perhaps of more general importance is that data from these remote and inaccessible places now gives us a much clearer picture of the state of the world’s oceans," says Mike Fedak, a professor of biology at St Andrews.

The work of the blubbery data-gatherers has so far produced almost 400,000 environmental profiles, helping to compile one of the largest oceanographic databases for the polar oceans.

The battery-powered, lightweight trackers (or tags) detach when the animal moults, and have been tested to ensure they're non-invasive and don't hamper their oceangoing wearers. As the seals move around, the tags periodically send information via satellites back to the researchers in the form of short messages. “The information sent back to us gives us details about the seal’s immediate physical environment. It’s like tweeting,” explains St Andrews lecturer Dr Lars Boehme.

Seal Tracker Up Close 2015 06 01
A tagged southern elephant seal on South Georgia. Image: Lars Boehme/University of St Andrews 
Scientists And Seals 2015 06 01
Female southern elephant seals and their pups during the breeding season on South Georgia. Two females are equipped with trackers. Image: Lars Boehme/University of St Andrews

Now, this information about the world's remote polar regions has been made available to scientists and climate researchers around the globe via the MEOP portal – Marine Mammals Exploring the Oceans Pole-to-Pole. 

“The new portal will make available all the data collected by animals up to now to the wider international scientific community and will import future animal platform data as well. This development is particularly timely as an increasing number of studies now focus on the importance of data from these remote and inaccessible parts of the sea,” says Boehme.

Top header image: David Cook, Flickr