Scientists have turned to elephant seals to collect data on the changing climate of Antarctica, one of the areas most sensitive to climate change. Previously, the scientists had what they called a “blind spot” under the sea ice, particularly in understanding how quickly sea ice forms during the winter months. The team, led by Jean-Benoit Charrassin of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, attached data collecting sensors to local elephant seals, which then dove distances up to a mile below the surface of the water in search of food.

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Scientists outfit an elephant seal with a data collection device and check its colon for polyps.

With the sensors, the researchers were able to gather nine times as much data on pressure, salinity and position, as was previously accessible from ships and buoys and thirty times as much information. (Note: Can anyone clarify on the difference between data and information? It sounds like a subtle attempt to get more grant money to us.)

More below the fold…

Commented Steve Rintoul from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in this article in Le Figaro, “Les éléphants de mer ont notamment permis d’augmenter de 30 fois les profils hydrographiques dans la zone de glace de mer», soulignent les chercheurs dans l’étude.”

Understanding how sea ice forms is a key element in predicting the effect of climate change on Antarctica and the world as a whole. Not only do many rare and endangered species rely on sea ice to live, but it also plays crucial roles in ocean currents and global temperatures. By employing elephant seals the scientists were also able to save huge costs in workers compensation and benefits packages, as allowing them to sexually harass the seals as much as they desired without any threat of legal action…Geniuses all of them!


  1. #1 synapse
    August 15, 2008

    I have a guess about what they’re actually doing back there to the seal. I helped a friend’s lab measure and tag juvenile elephant seals. Even as juveniles, they’re huge, have big teeth, and can easily gouge a big hole in you. It took four or five people sitting on a baby seal to immobilize it enough to get a measuring tape around it. So the seal in the picture is probably anesthetized. My friend says when they anesthetize seals (which we didn’t do for measuring them, but they do for collecting blood samples, etc.), they need to monitor the seal’s temperature very carefully. Because of their layers of fat, if the seal is moving even slightly because the anesthesia is a little light, the core temperature will go up, and the seal might overheat. My guess is that the scientists in the back are monitoring temperature and anesthesia level.

  2. #2 Thomas
    August 16, 2008

    Just a guess about the difference between data and information. Maybe data collected by the seals cover a larger volume of the ocean than the corresponding amount of data collected by a ship, thus giving more information about the state of the ocean? Consider if you take a vertical profile of the ocean. Doubling the vertical resolution will double the amount of data, but not the amount of information since the data will be highly correlated. A seal transmitter will have a limited power budget and will thus probably do less frequent samples, increasing the distance between them.

  3. #3 synapse
    August 16, 2008

    @Thomas: Good guess, but they claimed that they received 30 times as much information but only 9 times as much data. If Benny would be so kind as to provide a link to his source (that’s not in French), we might be able to clear this up.

  4. #4 Devon
    August 16, 2008

    Data is raw numbers and figures that have no meaning until you interpret them and use them in a manner that is useful. Information is what you get from interpreting that data. How you use it.

    As an example: You have two digits, 5 and 7. They don’t mean anything, you’re not doing anything with them, you’re getting no information from them. They’re just data.
    However, from those two pieces of data you can gather the following information: that 5 x 7 is 35, that 5 + 7 is 12, that 7 – 5 is 2, that 7^2 + 5^2 = 74 and that the square root of 74 is then the length of the hypotenuse. So you’re getting multiple bit of information for a few bits of data.

    It’s where “fudging the numbers” comes from. Data is just data until you do something with it, and depending on how you use that data, you can prove almost anything you want to. It’s all in the interpretation.

  5. #5 Jenbug
    August 16, 2008

    I just watched Werner Herzog’s film ‘Encounters at the End of the World,’ about the people who end up living and working in Antarctica. It was really fascinating, how some people come to be there through research work or for a career-related purpose, and how others just sort of rattled around the rest of the planet and eventually end up down there.

    One segment detailed how they took blood samples from seals. The researchers quietly snuck up behind the seals, then slammed a black bag over their heads and bagged the whole animal up. It had to be the funniest thing I’ve seen in a while.

    Anyway, to cut a long ramble short, the film was very interesting and if y’all get a chance to see it I think you’d enjoy it–they examine some of the incredible life found under glaciers, it’s totally like something from a 60’s sci-fi movie!

  6. #6 Paco
    August 18, 2008

    Perhaps things got garbled in the press release, and what the scientists initially said was nine times as many data (collection) points — with that, and a little more than three times as much data/information gathered at each point, the math would work, eh?

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