November 2 – All’s Weddell That Ends Weddell

Today’s factismal: The southern-most mammal in the world is the Weddell Seal.

If you were to set your WABAC machine to London in 1819, you’d find the entire town was abuzz over the discovery of a set of islands located below South America’s Cape Horn. Known as the South Shetland Islands, these lonely rocks were (and are) covered with moss, grass, and blood algae and serve as a home to giant petrels, arctic terns, and (most importantly) seals. Those seals were covered in blubber which meant that they were rich in the oil that Londoners (and others) needed to keep their lamps burning. And given that the supply of whales was getting a bit low, a new hunting ground for seals was just what the doctor ordered. So an intrepid sealer by the name of James Weddell decided to head south to see what seals the sea might render.

A Weddell Seal, asleep on the ice (My camera)

A Weddell seal, asleep on the shore ice
(My camera)

When he got there, Weddell discovered an entirely new type of seal. Being a modest man, he decided to give the seal the best name he could think of – his own! (He also named the area where he found them “the Weddell sea”. Yep, that guy was certainly full of humility.) His seals were fairly large; an adult Weddell seal is about ten feet long and weighs about 1,000 pounds. They have long whiskers like a cat and great big eyes that they use to sense fish in the deep, dark waters near Antarctica.

The Weddell seal uses its whiskers to sense the motion of fish in the dark water (My camera)

The Weddell seal uses its whiskers to sense the motion of fish in the dark water
(My camera)

And they were fairly easy to catch; unlike other seals, the Weddell seal prefers to “haul out” on shore ice in the summer instead of lying about on free-floating icebergs. During the winter they actually stay in the water all the time as it is warmer than being up on the ice! As a result, Weddell and those who followed him (all of whom came during the summer because they weren’t stupid) killed hundreds of thousands of Weddell seals over the next few decades.

The mottled coat is characteristic of a Weddell seal (My camera)

The mottled coat is characteristic of a Weddell seal
(My camera)

But time and the discovery of kerosene changed matters. Today the Weddell seal is once more abundant, with nearly 800,000 individuals living around Antarctica. And because they live on the Southern continent, they are protected by law which means that the only thing they have to worry about now is a hungry orca or leopard seal (who eat the young). And because they live all the way down to McMurdo Sound at 77°S, which is farther south than any other mammal, they are the southernmost mammal in the world!

Being the southernmost mammal makes them one of the most interesting and least-studied mammals in the world. And that’s where you can help! The University of Minnesota is asking citizen scientists, especially those in classrooms, to help them count Weddell seals seen on satellite pictures. By learning how many seals live in an area, they hope to learn more about the ecological health of the region. To learn more about the project, swim on over to:
http://www.pgc.umn.edu/about/research/weddell

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