As a kid, Shane Kanatous dreamed of becoming the next Jacques Cousteau. Now, after six trips to Antarctica and an upcoming project to study leopard seals on the ice, the associate professor of biology at Colorado State University believes his work might actually be even a littler cooler than Cousteau’s.
“He was observing the animals and filming them,” Kanatous said. “I actually get to work with the animals.”
The National Science Foundation recently awarded Kanatous more than $194,000 to study the feeding habits and physiology of leopard seals, one of Antarctica’s top marine predators. Kanatous will be a member of a research team that includes Daniel P. Costa, professor of physical and biological sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Daniel E. Crocker, professor of biology at Sonoma State University, and Stephen J. Trumble, associate professor of biology at Baylor University.
The animals might look cute in pictures, but they are fierce predators and can be very dangerous, Kanatous said. They can reach nine feet long and weigh more than a thousand pounds. “They’re essentially the orca of the seal world,” he said. So field work with the animals is left to highly trained researchers.
The grant will last for four years and will allow Kanatous and his team to return to Antarctica for a month every spring from 2018 to 2020. Because the National Science Foundation will also support all travel and living expenses for the Antarctic research, the total amount they will provide the project is closer to $3.4 million per year, Kanatous said.
At a remote Antarctica research station called Cape Sherriff, Kanatous and his team will study how leopard seals use energy while they swim. They will also try to answer other questions about the animals, such as their population numbers and whether they can adapt to different ice patterns caused by climate change. But first they have to find the elusive seal.
Cruising among the floating ice in a small skiff boat, the team will look for the animals. When they spot one on ice or on land, they will sedate the seal in order to take tissue samples and attach data recording devices. If they spot a seal in the water, however, the team won’t be able to sedate it without the animal drowning. So instead, they’ll count it as part of their population study.
Leopard seals are the top-level predator in their environment, Kanatous said. As such, they help keep ecosystems in balance by controlling the population of other organisms. They also act as an indicator species for how well the ecosystem is functioning. Therefore, studying the leopard seal will help Kanatous and his team understand the overall health of its environment.
“If that animal is in trouble, you’ll actually notice the rest of the system will be in trouble, because all ecosystems work on a balance,” Kanatous said.
Additionally, Kanatous hopes to learn more about how the leopard seal conserves oxygen and slows its heart rate when it dives. The process is physiologically similar to a heart attack, yet allows seals to hunt underwater for up to two hours. Learning how this mechanism works may have applications in medical science. For example, Kanatous said that it might help scientists develop methods to speed recovery times for patients after open-heart surgery.
Life in the Icebox
Temperatures at the research station are likely to range from 0 to -10 degrees Celsius. But compared to Kanatous’ previous experience at McMurdo Station, where it was often -40 degrees, this trip will be balmy.
The toughest part about research in Antarctica, Kanatous said, is not the temperature but the fact that he will be away from home for months at a time. Nevertheless, he is excited to study the leopard seal and learn how to protect it from the effects of climate change. Most of all, he is looking forward to working with wildlife in its natural arctic habitat.
“It’s an adventure,” Kanatous said. “Working in Antarctica is an extreme adventure.”