Field Notes from Antarctica
It is very rare to meet someone like Kaitlin. She is one of the very few people I know that has been to the south pole.
When she as a kid she lived on a old ranch and she would dig up cow bones with her brother and try to figure out what dinosaur they were from. If you ask me, she was destined to be a scientist.
I caught up with her to ask about her first trip to Antarctica, what card games she plays during storms, and what kind of pies they make on the Coleman stove. The Weddell seal project she joined two years ago was initiated in 1968. It is ancient! A lot has happened since then. We hear these stories directly from the source.
Kaitlin Macdonald: I was born and raised in Montana and did my undergraduate degree at Montana State University in economics and environmental studies. When I graduated, I quickly realized that my passion didn’t necessarily lie in economics. I really enjoyed working outside in the natural world. When I had the opportunity to work for a graduate student at Montana State University at the time studying bighorn sheep and mountain goats in Yellowstone park. We did occupancy surveys and mapped the habitat of the animals. That was a really inspiring project to be on. That particular student was so helpful and really wanted us to learn. That inspired me to follow wildlife biology as a career. Coincidentally, that particular student had gone down to Antarctica as a field technician. After talking with him about going to Antarctica, I got pretty excited about the Weddell seal project and was hired on as a technician in 2014 to go down to Antarctica. I had a wonderful season and they brought me on as a Master’s student after that season. I’ve been working on this project now for close to two years. And yeah, it’s been awesome.
Cindy Wu: How did you first get connected with that graduate student working in Yellowstone?
So, my Mom is the accountant for the Ecology Department and she introduced me to all these people who she thought I might want to work for. I got lucky that they chose me.
After working with Jay for the first field season as a technician, what made you decide that you really wanted to have Jay as your advisor?
Oh, gosh. Well, first of all I’d been thinking about doing grad school for a while and this project seemed like such a wonderful opportunity. And then both Jay and the other co-PI on the project, Bob Garrott, are such inspiring individuals. They’re really passionate about the science they do and really care about their students. You can just tell when they teach, and even more so when in the field with them. They really care and they go out of their way to make sure that their students are understanding everything.
I think their passion for the science and how much they care for the students are the huge factors. I think sometimes people don’t get so lucky to have advisors that really care about them.
I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about like professors that only care about publishing about getting the next grant. You’re in a pretty good situation.
Before your first trip to Antarctica what were some things you have to prepare?
Just in terms of gear?
Mentally, as well.
The first trip down there is really interesting because I don’t think there’s any way you can prepare. It’s just such a different world. I had no clue what to expect. I knew it would be long hard work. And, I knew it would be cold.
I think the best attributes for people, at least working on our crew, is the ability to be really flexible and keep a good attitude. Having an awareness of the animals is important because we work with so many animals every day, and so to really, really be cognizant of our impact on them. Things change so quickly down there too. The thing that I learned and wasn’t really expecting was I thought I just had to work really hard, but being able to really roll with the punches is super important. Learning that “okay, well this isn’t going to happen this day what can we do instead,” was something that was really helpful.
I thought it was just going to be a giant ice sheet, but when you go down there there’s this enormous volcano right next to where we work and all the areas where the Weddell seals colonize and haul out on the sea ice is generally around these volcanic islands. There are these cracks created by the tide. It breaks the ice that’s attached to the island and then the sea ice can float up and down with the tide. That’s where the seals are able to access holes to get out onto the ice. There’s just so much more there then I really thought. It is just so beautiful.
What is one unexpected event that happened that required flexibility from the crew?
Some days you have a lot of work to do and there are huge storms that come through, so you just have to sit there and wait. We tag every pup, basically right after it is born because it is important for us, that we get an accurate measurement of the lactation length for that animal. And then creating that association between the mother and the pup allows us to create a robust data base. We have generations of data, so it’s just really hard to sit in the shipping container that we live in and just know all these pups are being born and you can’t do anything. You can’t go out and tag them because safety comes first. There are a lot of storms that come through and you just have to quickly make the decision. You have to stop doing whatever we’re doing for the day and go back.
What happens to the pups during the storm?
It’s incredible. It’ll storm for a day and a half and you go out to start tagging pups again and they’re cuddled up against their mother covered in drifts of snow. They don’t really seem to mind or care. It’s pretty amazing to watch. They are so well adapted to that climate, and the thing about the pups is they’re a lot smaller, so you think that they wouldn’t be able to thermoregulate as well, but they’re born with this special fur, lanugo, it’s really, really warm as long as they’re relatively dry. If they go swim it doesn’t really keep them warm as well, but when they’re hauled out on the ice that lanugo keeps them really warm, So, to answer your question they don’t seem to mind the storms too much.
Pretty unique. During the storm what do you guys do in the shipping container?
We will read. Usually there’s work that we can do, either with our own projects or we’ll take little tiny tissue samples of certain individual animals and prepare and store those. A lot of card games happen. This year, someone baked a pie, which was pretty incredible. We just used a Coleman stove. There are little work tasks we can do and then usually people are just hanging out.
What are your favorite card games?
Oh gosh, favorite? We haven’t got a lot of traditional ones. Last year we played this game called, I don’t know if this is the real name, it’s called Kaboo? One of the people that worked with us learned this game from some Israeli people that he met traveling. That one’s really fun, it’s kind of like a memory game. So, that got played very frequently.
I know that this Weddell seal project is a really long ongoing project. Could you tell us more about the history?
This project was started in 1968 by Don Siniff and his grad student at the time. They’re from University of Minnesota. It started as a small study. They would tag a subset of animals and they did some other physiology tests on them. They asked more physiological questions than we do now. They were just trying to get a basic understanding of the Weddell seal. I’m not quite sure when the transfer happened, but Don Siniff held the project for a long time, up until, I believe, the early 2000’s. One of the co-PI’s on the project now, Bob Garrott, had been one of Don Siniff’s graduate students in the past. Don wanted to pass the project along so he asked past students that were interested submit proposals to the National Science Foundation and whoever got chosen would continue this project. Bob and Jay Rotella submitted a proposal together. That’s when we started doing more population dynamics studies and asking more population related questions.
Tell me about your first encounter with a Weddell seal.
I think it is the most fun the first time people get to see the actual seals because you get to Antarctica and that in itself is a big hurdle and then you’re running around the station which is kind of like a glorified mining town. You kind of forget your real reason for being there then when you finally get out on the ice and you interact with your first seal it’s pretty incredible. “Oh, wow this is why I’m here!” These are enormous animals, the females are around 1000 pounds. Their presence is so huge. Their so docile though. It’s so funny. They’ll acknowledge your presence but it doesn’t seem to bother them too much, and that was pretty incredible to me to have a 1,000 pound carnivore just basically ignore me. I think the other really neat thing about our first time out there in the field is I had no understanding of what type of sound or noises the seals would make. The vocalization that the pups and moms make to each other are pretty interesting. You can be standing on the ice and hear them communicate under water and it almost sounds kind of like sonar.
You hear this little like “peeeeew”. You can feel the ice vibrating as seals swim underneath communicating with each other.
I think being out there and hearing them all communicate is pretty incredible, just like unworldly sound.
That’s really awesome. Why do these seals choose to live in Antarctica? Do you know?
That’s a great question. I am not quite sure, I have read a little bit about their evolution and how they broke off of other branches. These particular seals are really well adapted for living in Antarctica and for swimming long durations and deep depths underneath the ice. This allows them to escape predators really well. Their main predator is the orca and to a lesser degree for the pups, the leopard seal. When these females give birth to their pups they swim miles under the ice to where we are, to give birth to their pups. That allows them to give birth to a pup in a totally predator free environment, so they don’t have to worry about orcas or leopard seals and the pups can develop without that presence. Because of this they have really high survival rates up until they reach dependence and go out on their own. It is just such a hostile environment but not very many other animals are there so I think that really works to their advantage.
Tell me about the current project that you’re working on and the photos you’ve collected to analyze this summer.
In 2012 and 2014 we took some photogrammetry projects from these seals and what that consists of is laying out these one meter bars of re-bar around a female and then you just take a point and shoot camera and take photos of her at 8 different spots around that seal. We have these different angles that we like to use. The hard part of this is she can’t move in any of the photos to get an accurate volume, so you have to take all these photos make sure all the bars are in the photo and the female is not moving. From that we used a software program called PhotoModeler. You load every photo, mark the spots on all these bars, and then trace the outline of the seal, and that will give you a 3-D rendering of this seal. From that you can get the volume. And then we use a density measure for Weddell seals to give us a mass estimate of these females. In 2012 and 2014 we did this without having the software only taking photos to see if it was even possible. We’d heard of it done with elephant seals but they’d been anesthetized so they weren’t moving. For us the big problem was can we do this without anesthetizing animals? Last year when I came on we were able to get a trial version of the software and it worked. This year we made a really big effort. And, we probably got over 150 different photo projects on females. Those consist of photos of the female right after she gave birth to her pup and we don’t know the exact weaning dates of these pups but 35 days is the accepted guideline. At 35 days we do another set of photos of that female to standardize weaning for all the pups. This allows us to see how much mass that female has lost during lactation. In the past we’ve been able to weigh the females at birth of their pup but we have never been able to weigh them at weaning just because it’s too logistically difficult at that point. Females are hard to find, it’s hard to get them on scale. The ice is not in as great of condition, so bringing this giant weigh sled that we have to weigh them on is really difficult.
We can estimate masses with this technique for so many more animals than we could ever weigh. We know that young females and old females give birth to really light pups, and they themselves are lighter, than the prime age category of females that are between 11 and 17 years old. We know that pups of young mothers are weaning really light, and the pups of prime age and old mothers wean at basically the same weight. So, it seems like the old mothers are pouring a lot more mass into their pups. We don’t really know if they’re more efficient producing really fatty milk or if they’re actually loosing proportionally more mass than prime age females. We are trying to investigate this question of how the old females are producing such heavy pups when they themselves their giving birth to such light pups.
You mentioned mothers are about 1000 pounds before giving birth. How heavy are the mothers after weaning?
They’ll lose up to fifty percent of their body mass. I’d say a female that weighed 1000 pounds at time of birth of her pup will probably weigh around 600 pounds when she weans if not less.
And then do you put that mom on the weigh sled?
When we weigh them at birth of their pup, we coax them on to the scale. They slide onto this cattle scale with some coaxing from us, we don’t have to do any lifting. We have never weighed them at weaning because they are preparing to leave the colony and just don’t care, so it is really hard actually to get them on the scale. We don’t have to pick them up or anything like that.
Yeah, I was wondering that. So you’re raising money for one technician and also a computer? What kind of computer are you looking for?
We want a pretty high powered laptop. It doesn’t have to be really nice but what we have right now we can’t bring down to Antarctica with us so we can’t process photos when we are down there.
Last questions. What’s one piece of advice you would give a younger version of yourself?
I would probably say don’t sweat it, don’t worry about it too much. It will all work out. Just keep striving to do what you want to do. You don’t have to sit at a desk all day doing something you don’t want to do. There are so many opportunities and jobs out there that you can find a passion for.
Just go with the flow.
When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?
For a long time I wanted to be an astronaut actually. I also did really want to be a scientist, I wanted a telescope for a long time. We lived in an area that used to be a ranch so my brother and I would dig up cow bones that we found and try to figure out what dinosaur they were from when we were little. I was just really into exploring. But the astronaut, I think space really fascinated me as a kid.
You kind of are going to space because you go to this other world that people don’t normally go to.
Definitely. I’ll take it.
Kaitlin is analyzing the photos her team took in Antarctica this summer. She still needs a laptop and funds to hire a technician. From today’s publication day, she has one week left to raise the funds. If you still have questions, you can ask Kaitlin herself. If you have a laptop to donate, send Kaitlin a message.