UNCW researchers travel to Antarctica to study the effects of climate change and more

Michael Tefft of UNCW, Recipient of the University’s Rising Research Excellence Award, and Ph.D. Student Anna Pearson was stationed in Patagonia, Chile for two-and-a-half weeks of quarantine before embarking on her month-and-a-half trip to Antarctica aboard the Nathaniel B Palmer, a large ice-breaking research vessel.

A three-year research grant and more than half a million dollars is made possible by the National Science Foundation.

Joining Tefft and Pearson is Dr Louis Hochstadt, Associate Professor at UNCW and Senior Lecturer at the University of Exeter, and Dr Dan Costa from UC Santa Cruz, UCSD Ph.D. Student Arena Favela and UNU student Zaher Santanam.

Tift Bottom Left: “We’re off to Antarctica to go study crab seals! Join team #B038N for more updates!” Tweet embed

The polar location is important to their research on the effects of climate change.

“It is one of the regions that has experienced one of the fastest rates of warming in the world. It is precisely for this reason that we are going to the West Antarctic Peninsula,” Pearson said.

They study these effects through sentinel species, animals that detect dangers to humans, and provide advance warning of danger — in this case, the danger of warming seas.

“We know that crab seals have a very exclusive diet of krill. That makes them a really cool species for understanding what is happening to the entire ecosystem in terms of climate change, and where krill species might change in response to some climate warming, as well as where they might shift predators in response, Pearson said.

These sentinel species are those that can be studied “to learn about multiple levels of health within other populations and/or the environment,” said Dr. Tefft. Since they are number one predators, their overall health can inform researchers about how their environment as a whole is performing. If it changes The environment so much that it affects the small organisms and conditions that affect the food of the crab seals (like krill), they can see that in the health of the crab seals.”

Their name is somewhat of a misnomer—scholars believe it was a mistranslation, Tefft said.

“So crab seals, they don’t actually eat crabs, they eat krill, which are crustaceans. So they’re basically like little shrimps,” Tefft said.

Specialized teeth for a crab seal.

Dan Costa


University of California Santa Cruz

Specialized teeth for a crab seal.

And there are millions of such seals, according to Tift, “Most of the Earth’s people know nothing about crab seals because they are really only in Antarctica. Not many people have a chance to see them or even get to know them.”

Tefft and Pearson build their work on the research of Dr. Costa and Dr. Haxtadt. They have been studying the health of crab seals for about 15 years.

“So our job is to go down and try to replicate some of those measurements to see if there are any differences. We will also do some health measurements of the animals to try to understand body condition and diet and differences in mass and things like that,” Tefft said.

While in Antarctica, researchers hope to tag seals in order to detect their migration patterns. They’ll only have about five months of data because the tag falls off when the animals shed.

“It will also move the location so we can kind of see where the animals are going, how much time they spend traveling, looking for food, things like that,” Tefft said.

It is Tefft’s hypothesis that crabs seal populations are shifting locations in Antarctica.

“The idea is that as the West North Pole gets warmer, it actually causes a lot of animals to want to move south where it’s going to be cooler, sort of closer to the South Pole,” Tefft said.

According to Tift, it could also mean that they have to forage for food deeper – or they have to forage for food for a longer period of time.

Tefft’s research on deep mammals and carbon dioxide

Tefft and his team will also study the levels of carbon monoxide in these seals. His area of ​​expertise is how high levels of gas help protect these deep marine mammals – and how this ability affects human health.

Related – Coastline: Elephant seal biology may reveal new medical uses for carbon monoxide

Recent research has shown that small and low doses of carbon monoxide have fairly strong protective effects on cells and tissues. “The most promising protective effect is anti-inflammatories or apoptosis,” Tefft said.

This part of the research focuses on the ability of marine mammals to regulate, and restrict, blood flow during deep diving.

If a cell is infected, one’s body can “mark” it to be destroyed, so that the body can make new cells. This is called apoptosis and is usually a normal and controlled part of growth and development, but too much apoptosis or cell death can cause problems for organ tissues.

This can occur during so-called ischemic-reperfusion events: ischemia is the restriction of blood flow, and reperfusion is the restoration of blood flow. Apoptosis can occur during ischemia and persist during reperfusion, causing inflammation.

Enter carbon monoxide, which can help reduce this inflammation, which translates into potential treatments for those who have had a stroke, heart attack or organ transplant — all situations in which blood flow is reduced or stopped and then turned back on.

“So carbon monoxide, in many cases is shown to reduce the amount of organ transplant rejection. But what sets these marine mammals apart, is that, so far, they are the only species in the world known to have high levels of carbon monoxide throughout their lives,” Tefft said. : “It is not normal for a human or a laboratory animal to have high levels of carbon monoxide, even though they show us that it protects them.”

The coolest part of this evolutionary trick, according to Tefft, is that when marine mammals dive “they will reduce blood flow to most organs like the spleen, liver, kidneys, and intestines so that they can maintain a constant flow of oxygenated blood to organs like the heart and brain, which requires a lot of effort.” oxygen.”

Then, when they reach the surface, these deep mammals “re-sterilize” tissues that were cut – that is, in ischemia – during the dive. Thus these marine mammals are constantly undergoing ischemia and reperfusion events.

“And so we wonder, is it an evolutionary advantage for them to keep their permanent carbon dioxide levels high in order to prevent injuries to their tissues? We don’t know that yet,” Tefft said.

It’s important for the public to know — that carbon dioxide from cigarette smoke is not helpful at all, Tefft said.

While cigarettes may transmit low to moderate amounts of carbon dioxide, they also introduce a large number of extremely harmful chemicals into the body that can have severe negative effects. “The same goes for car exhaust,” Tefft said.

Climate Change Impacts

Regardless of the potential health benefits, eventually Pearson and Tefft hope their study of seals will help show just how much climate change is happening.

“Although we don’t see what’s happening in Antarctica every day, I think this project will really help us understand what we’re doing and how it affects other species as well,” Pearson said.

    Crab seal puppy resting.

NOAA NMFS SWFSC Antarctic Marine Living Resources (AMLR) Program


Ray Buchet

Crab seal puppy resting.

Tefft said that many scientists believe the biggest threat to society is climate change.

“It’s happening on a global scale. It affects animals all over the world. For the most part, many of them can’t keep up with the rate at which their environment is changing and that’s unfortunate,” Tefft said.

Even more alarming is that those animals that live in Antarctica are rapidly losing their habitat from sea ice.

In April 2022, the Washington Post published a study that showed that A third of marine life could vanish within 300 years. Princeton University researchers, Justin Penn and Curtis Deutsch, published their findings in the journal Science.

In the article, the researchers noted, the oceans absorb excess carbon dioxide – thus depleting the oxygen in the water.

“This will change the pH of the water making it more acidic,” Tefft said, which would in turn begin to affect species like krill, the crab seal’s main food source.

According to Tefft, the bigger picture of stopping the impact of climate change needs to be led by lawmakers to make decisions to stop carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.

Tift and his team continue to build the scientific record of the impacts of climate change through this study of seals.

“As scientists, what we’re trying to do on this journey is we’re focusing on a few species, mostly crabs and krill, and trying to understand how they’re changing,” Tefft said.

The researchers will spend the next month gathering data – and then return in May 2023 to reassess the lobster seal populations.

Do you want to follow their journey to Antarctica?

Twitter: uncwtiftlabLuisHuckstadt

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*Editor’s note: This original article incorrectly identified the ship’s name as Daniel D. Palmer. It’s Nathaniel B Palmer. Dr. Tefft also explained some of the science behind CO2 – and the effects of apoptosis and ischemia on the organs of marine mammals. He also demonstrated the effect of sentinel species. Furthermore, carbon dioxide is best defined as a gas rather than a chemical. This article reflects those updates.

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