Collaborative Research: Determining Factors Affecting Distribution and Population Variability of the Ice-obligate Weddell Seal
Antarctic-wide Weddell seal populations
The Weddell seal is the southern-most mammal in the world, having a circumpolar distribution around Antarctica; the McMurdo Sound population in Antarctica is one of the best-studied mammal populations on earth. However, despite this, an understanding of how populations around the continent will fare under climate change is poorly understood. A complicating matter is the potential effects of a commercial enterprise in the Antarctic: a fishery targeting toothfish, which are important prey for Weddell seals. Although the species is easily detected and counted during the breeding season, no reliable estimates of continent-wide Weddell seal numbers exist, due to the logistic difficulties of surveying vast regions of Antarctica. Large-scale estimates are needed to understand how seal populations are responding to the fishery and climate change, because these drivers of change operate at scales larger than any single population, and may affect seals differently in different regions of the continent. We will take advantage of the ease of detectability of darkly colored seals when they the on ice to develop estimates of abundance from satellite images. This project will generate baseline data on the global distribution and abundance of Weddell seals around the Antarctic and will link environmental variables to population changes to better understand how the species will fare as their sea ice habitat continues to change. These results will help disentangle the effects of climate change and fishery operations, results that are necessary for appropriate international policy regarding fishery catch limits, impacts on the environment, and the value of marine protected areas. The project will also further the NSF goals of training new generations of scientists and of making scientific discoveries available to the general public. It will engage "arm-chair" scientists of all ages through connections with several non-governmental organizations and the general public. Anyone with access to the internet, including people who are physically unable to participate in field research directly, can participate in this project while simultaneously learning about multiple aspects of polar ecology through the project's interactive website.
Specifically, this research project will: 1) Quantify the distribution of Weddell seals around Antarctica and 2) Determine the impact of environmental variables (such as fast ice extent, ocean productivity, bathymetry) on habitat suitability and occupancy. To do this, the project will crowd-source counting of seals on high-resolution satellite images via a commercial citizen science platform. Variation in seal around the continent will then be related to habitat variables through generalized linear models. Specific variables, such as fast ice extent will be tested to determine their influence on population variability through both space and time. The project includes a rigorous plan for ensuring quality control in the dataset including ground truth data from other, localized projects concurrently funded by the National Science Foundation's Antarctic Science Program.
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