No, I’m not talking about myself (although I do have many layers). Work in Antarctica is all fun and full of glamour, except when it gets cold and windy (i.e. all the time). As I have mentioned before, we are conducting a series of necropsies on dead animals that we have to find before they freeze, in order to harvest fresh samples that will later allow our team to grow cells in the lab. It is a sad thing to see these pups dead on the ice, but that is how nature works… The survival of the fittest.
There are many reason why the pups might die before even reaching their weaning. Sometimes, the mothers abandon their pups (we know younger mothers tend to do this, but there is not a clear pattern or reason). Other times, they might wander off while their mothers are out at sea foraging, other times they can even fall through the many cracks and breathing holes in the ice before being able to swim and drown underwater. There might also be some disease affecting them.
Although the necropsies are generally performed to investigate the cause of death, ours are just directed towards collecting fresh samples as I mentioned earlier. Doing that in the field is hard enough, but then add the cold and the wind, and sometimes it can turn flat out miserable. The solution? The Onion. The Onion is a clever invention inherited from a previous seal project that looked into the patterns of ageing of Weddell seals, and which we have used plenty of times. It really is a tent, shaped a bit like an igloo, which we can set in the field in a matter of minutes around a particular spot, and which allows us to work sheltered from the rough conditions on the ice. Setting up the tent requires at least three people, some ice screws and someone tall that can reach the zipper of the tent (good thing Manu Buys is here for that!).
So, join me in a celebration of The Onion… A warm place in the middle of the sea ice for science!
Surprisingly, the onion is a perfect place to work, as it keeps the temperature unusually warm inside when we are working on the necropsies, thus preventing the samples from freezing as soon as they get exposed to the air (which happens almost instantaneously), allowing us to then use these samples for our research. Samples taken from freshly dead animals are the only way to collect arteries from animals (apart from the placentas we’ve talked about before). There isn’t a non-lethal way to harvest arteries, so we rely on these procedures to get the samples, including a variety of tissues and organs that will help us identify the molecular biological mechanisms that these seals use in their incredible adaptations to undergo hypoxic events on a regular basis.
There are other days when we are out there looking for seals and the weather starts to get bad, or we are simply looking for a warm place to have lunch or a hot drink. For these occasions, we sometimes take advantage of the diving huts that have been placed in different spots around McMurdo Sound, so that scientists, investigating the life of benthic biota or fish, can easily get in the water and dive to do their research. Basically, a giant drill opens a hole big enough on the sea ice for a human to fit through, and then they bring this house on skies, with a heater and other facilities so that the diving hole does not freeze over. Well, there’s one in particular that is widely popular, because a male Weddell seal has decided to claim this hole as his own. He just likes to hang in there and he is not shy about humans at all, so he seems to not be bothered by our presence while we eat lunch.
He is there everyday, and we will miss his company during our lunch breaks when we are back home!