U.S. Markets closed

A Seal Wearing a Science Hat

Daisy Hernandez
Photo credit: Sorbonne University/Etienne Pauthenet

From Popular Mechanics

  • The cutest thing you'll see today is a seal wearing a hi-tech sensor that looks like a tiny hat purely for scientific research.
  • French researchers have been tagging seals on the Kerguelen Islands for more than two decades to gather data about our oceans including temperature fluctuations and current patterns.

While no technically a hat, this hi-tech sensor that's been glued to the elephant seal's head (in accordance with ethical standards) comes stock with an antenna for collecting data about the ocean. It's also very fashionable.

Lia Siegelman, a visiting scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, wanted to gather information about the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, the world's strongest ocean current that keeps Antarctica frozen. In order to reach some of the most inhospitable parts on planet Earth, Siegelman enlisted the help of the unnamed seal to gather data about the Circumpolar Current and how heat moves between the top layer of the ocean towards the icy depths.

The tagged seal swam over 3,000 miles across the span of a three-month period and made approximately 80 dives a day going as far as 1,000 meters down at times—and she gathered invaluable data along the way.

Photo credit: Tandi Reason Dahl

Siegelman noticed that this seal broke with the trend of traveling toward the east to forage and instead went in the opposite direction, right into the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. This is where our science hero spent around a third of her time, swimming around a standing meander, which is a permanent bend in a current.

Thanks to this deviation, Siegelman and other researchers were able to pinpoint where changes in water density—i.e.: cold and warm fronts—occurred. It also helped that the divide between dense and light water creates an easily accessible supply of phytoplankton for the seal to munch on.

The seal tagging isn't anything new. Scientists have been voyaging to the French-controlled Kerguelen Islands for more than 20 years to study the creatures. In 2014, they began utilizing new sensors that had the ability to keep track of every dive, which according to NASA, "provided an oceanographic data set with very high resolution."

The scientific seal also helped Siegelman and her co-authors disprove the notion that heat moves from the surface of the sea to its deeper reaches in a paper published in Nature.

The data collected by Siegelman and her team will help measure the amount of heat our oceans can store in addition to helping us understand how oceanic fronts with alternating temperatures, like the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, affect global climates and ecosystems.

Siegelman hopes that more scientists consider using the marine mammals in future research given that they provide such a wealth of not-so-easily accessed oceanic data. A seal can be a scientist's best friend.

You Might Also Like