Scientists put trackers on Antarctic seals to help them map the ocean floor.
The deep-diving seals revealed a massive underwater canyon over a mile deep.
This canyon may help scientists predict how the Antarctic ice sheet will react to climate change.
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Seals wear many hats — ambassadors for the Antarctic, friends to whales, and award-winning models. Their new hat has a scientific purpose, helping researchers discover the unseen parts of the ocean floor.
By strapping devices that measure depth, temperature, and salt levels to seals’ heads, scientists discovered a huge underground canyon in Vincennes Bay in Antarctica, that stretches up to 7,217 feet deep, or about 1.3 miles.
Clive McMahon, one of the ecologists at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science who ran the study, called the seals “heroes” in an email to Insider.
These seal scientists aren’t just helping us map unknown parts of the ocean, they’re also helping scientists predict how the Antarctic ice sheet might react to climate change, per the study.
What this canyon can show us about the future of Antarctica’s ice
Understanding ocean geography helps scientists predict how Antarctica’s ice sheet has reacted to global climate change in the past. Like how the Grand Canyon shows the pathway of an ancient river, these underwater features also give us an idea about how water moved in the past.
“By mapping these deep troughs and mountain ranges we have therefore added a key piece of the puzzle to help understand how the East Antarctic Ice Sheet may have responded to past change and how it may do so in the future,” Fausto Ferraccioli, who studies these underwater formations and was not involved in the study, told NBC.
They also give scientists an idea of the thinner points of the Antarctic ice sheets, cluing them into what is more at risk of melting. Water from the canyon can move around the ice sheet, which may melt it more quickly when it’s warmed by climate change, the researchers told the Australian Center for Excellence in Aquatic Science, which contributed to the study.
“This knowledge is essential for scientists trying to measure icesheet melt rates,” Clive McMahon, the lead researcher on the paper, told the ACEAS.
How they got the hat on the seal
Because of extreme temperatures and pressure deep underwater, it’s difficult to build and operate ships that can dive into the depths of the oceans and return intact. That’s where deep-diving seals come in.
Antarctic seals, like the 50 Weddell seals and 215 southern elephant seals they tagged, regularly travel to great depths of the ocean.
In 2021, the researchers from the seal study suggested that placing sensors on the animals, which were headed down into the water anyway, could be a cheaper and more effective way to map the features of the Antarctic Ocean.
They did this by attaching the sensors “with adhesive to the hair on the seals’ heads.” Seals shed this hair each year, which means the seals performed their duty without any pain, the Australian Antarctic Program Partnership, a partner in the study, shared on X in response to concerns about the animal’s wellbeing.