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Seal study

A Scottish postgraduate student is spearheading a project which could lead to more effective conservation strategies for the grey seal.

Twenty-five year-old Carol Sparling, who is based at the University of St Andrews’ Sea Mammal Research Unit, will study the energy requirements of seals in the outdoor pool of the Gatty Marine Laboratory. Her results will provide the government with scientific information to help assess the nature and extent of competition between seals and fisheries.

The unique pool, which is 42 metres long, six metres wide and three metres deep, has been specially designed to create quasi- natural conditions for the seals in which scientists can conduct research which will lead to an improved understanding of the role of these animals in the marine environment.

Thought to have been born on the Isle of May late last year, Alice and Bonnie are the first mammals to use the pool. They will provide Carol with a means of observing the species in the most realistic and reliable setting and with the minimum disruption to the seals themselves. Carol said, “Grey seals in Britain currently amount to half the world population so are important in an international context. It’s extremely difficult to study grey seals, especially their energy requirements, in the wild as they spend most of their time hundreds of kilometres from the shore, feeding in the open sea. In fact while at sea they spend up to 90% of their time underwater. So this kind of captive study is essential if we are able to fully understand their impact on fish stocks”.

The number of grey seals in British waters has increased since 1960 to over 120,000 animals. The main breeding sites can be found on the Inner and Outer Hebrides, Orkney and the Shetland Islands, the mainland coast of the far north and north-east of Scotland, the Isle of May, south- west Wales, and the Farne Islands. The population rise has led to claims that seals are competing with commercial fisheries for already depleted fish stocks.

Carol’s research is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) who, under the Conservation of Seals Act 1970, have a statutory obligation to provide the government with advice on the size and status of UK seal populations.

She will conduct her research into the seals’ energy requirements by measuring their oxygen consumption and linking her findings to their diving and swimming activity. Sections of the pool are linked up to high-tech equipment within the laboratory enabling Carol to make physiological measurements without disturbing the seals.

Carol explained, “Before now, researchers have estimated energy requirements of seals using measurements made in unrealistic situations. By studying the seals in a large captive facility such as this, we can attempt to recreate the type of diving and swimming behaviour seen in the wild, giving more realistic results”.

As part of her PhD entitled “Seasonality and ontogeny of energy requirements of grey seals”, Carol also hopes to study adult seals, to gain a clearer insight into the effect of seasons on seals’ energy requirements.

 

 

NOTE TO EDITORS – You are invited to a photocall at the seals’ outdoor pool of the Gatty Marine Laboratory at 11am on Monday 21 February 2000. Directions can be obtained from Claire Grainger – contact details below.

Issued by Beattie Media on behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information please contact Claire Grainger on 01334 462530, 07887 650072 or email cg24@st-andrews.ac.uk Ref: sealgatty/standrews/chg/18feb2000 PR1894

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