Sunday, 24 November 2013

Studying seals

So why are there 10 people stuck out on a small island for 6 weeks at the rough end of the year? Well these are the seal scientists and they are hardcore. It is hard work carrying out research on the Isle of May and it does take a certain type of person to do it. Most are connected with the Sea Mammal Research Unit based at St. Andrews University who have been carrying out studies on the island since the early 1980's making the Isle of May one of the most important and longest running seal research centres in Europe.
The work involves a mixture painstaking observations often taken over long hours in cold, wet and very windy conditions and handling animals for samples and measurements to be taken. The later means getting up close and personal to the seals which is hard physical work, dirty and can be hazardous (seal bites can go very septic very quickly!) but also takes great skill. Believe it or not some of the SMRU team have seal handling skills that are sought after all round the world.
The research covers a huge range of projects, this year there is working carried out on the island looking at the communications between mothers and pups, between weaners and other weaners and the hormones related to this, the variable heart rates in mothers and what causes the changes in heart rates. This can give an insight into what the effects of human disturbance can have on seals in breeding areas. The mother in the picture below has a heart rate monitor fixed to her back, temporarily, not an easy thing to achieve.
And then there is Martina who looking at the less cuddly aspect of seal life on the May, what eats the dead ones and which bits first. She is looking at both seal carcasses in the water and on land and is especially looking at the role of gulls is disposing of carrion. The gulls numbers fluctuate on the island during a year and one of the peaks seems to relate to peak pupping season. The gulls are sometimes better seal observers than humans and gulls hanging around a female can indicate that she is about to give birth.
By dipping into the world of Isle of May seal studies you gain and better insight of what is happening on the island, the seals there are not just lying around but all have complex and very varied struggles with survival.

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