Expedition to Antarctica Fulfills Childhood Dream; UNF Professor Joined Team Researching Reproduction of Seals

Article excerpt

Byline: Meredith Rutland

In Antarctica, baby Weddell seals scurry and flop across the ice as their mothers watch.

There's a mystery to these females that University of North Florida researchers want to uncover, said Julie Richmond, a UNF assistant professor of biology. Even though each female is able to give birth each year, not all of them do.

Some females opt to shed their thick fur in a process called molting, and start the hunt for fish earlier in the year.

That behavior has researchers wondering: What's happening there? Is something stopping that pregnancy from developing?

A multi-university team went to Antarctica in December and January, led by Jennifer Burns of the University of Alaska, Anchorage. Richmond joined them for the December trip. Experts from other universities, including the University of Saskatchewan, also went to Antarctica as a part of the team.

The research, which started in October, is funded by the National Science Foundation and is expected to last four years, Richmond said.

To study the seals' fertility, Richmond and other researchers found females that fit their study and went out on snowmobiles to track them down, she said.

When they found one, the seal floundered on the thick ice as it squirmed away from researchers. A veterinarian anesthetized the female, and researchers took samples of blood, fat and tissue and measurements, such as weight. Researchers on the second trip checked whether animals that had already been studied were pregnant.

That information will be used to figure out what's different in females that don't get pregnant each year, and what regulates how often they have offspring.

Their research also will be used to determine how these animals adjust to global warming and whether temperature changes have affect reproduction.

"We have a responsibility to understand how animals are going to respond to climate change and to help manage healthy sustainable populations," Richmond said. "This is one small piece of that puzzle."

If there's ever a place where climate change is a part of daily life, it's Antarctica.

The ice shelf, which was thick ice that had been frozen for thousands of years, is in danger.

The ice that usually melted and refroze each year has long disappeared, and the seals' habitat is shrinking, she said. …


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