Royal showcase for sea mammal research

Tuesday 8 August 2006

University of St Andrews scientists have been chosen to showcase their research at a Buckingham Palace ‘Science Day’.

The Sea Mammal Research Unit is taking its ‘What Ahab Never Saw’ exhibition to a special event on 24 October 2006. The team will be one of only nine in the UK, especially selected from the last two years of the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. The event will be attended by members of the Royal family including the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh.

They will also be taking the exhibit to a Royal Society event in Glasgow from 12-14 September.

Whales, seals and dolphins spend most of their lives submerged, even though they must return to the surface for air. Until recently, their lives below the waves have been largely unknown but advances in technology are now showing how these animals use the deep, often very dark underwater world of the oceans and the complex nature of their societies.

The sperm whale was the inspiration for Moby Dick, the white whale that was the nemesis of Captain Ahab. What Ahab and many real-life whalers never saw in the species they hunted was the complexity of their social lives, their consummate use of sound to track down food and communicate with each other, and their management of oxygen stores allowing them to dive to great depths. Now, with the advantage of technology, we can appreciate these capabilities and gain a greater knowledge of how changes in the oceans might affect their lives.

The exhibit concentrates on four species – the sperm whale, bottlenose dolphin, southern elephant seal and Antarctic fur seal. These represent the full range of deep- and shallow-diving species. As mammals, these species have a physiology that has a lot of similarities to humans and yet some can hold their breath and stay submerged for more than two hours and they can dive to over 2000 metres. The exhibit shows the methods used to track these animals using small instruments attached to their backs that then transmit the data back to the laboratory for analysis.

Referring to the London showcase, Professor Ian Boyd, Director of the Sea Mammal Research Unit said, “There are large parts of the oceans that we know very little about and we are in great danger of destroying important features without ever knowing they existed. Many people have an affinity with seals and whales and this makes them an excellent vehicle through which to transmit messages about the importance of managing our environment on a firm foundation of scientific knowledge. We are delighted to have been selected for this event which is a credit to the scientists at the Unit and the support we have received from a broad range of sponsors over may years including the Natural Environment Research Council”.


Issued by Beattie Media – On behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information, please contact Claire Grainger, Press Officer – 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or [email protected]; Ref: press releases/ahablondon View the latest University news at

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