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What Ahab never saw

The University of St Andrews Sea Mammal Research Unit will showcase some of its most exciting and cutting-edge research next week at a prestigious event highlighting the best of British science.

From Monday 4 to Thursday 7 July, a team of researchers will attend the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition.

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.

The exhibit is being led by four post-doctoral research fellows – Dr Patrick Miller, Dr Sascha Hooker, Dr Vincent Janik, who are all Royal Society Research Fellows at the University of St Andrews, and Dr Martin Buiw. It has been created in conjunction with Fifex, a spin-out company from the School of Physics and Astronomy, specialising in the design and manufacture of high-tech, thought- provoking interactive exhibits.

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 marine mammals and this makes them an excellent vehicle through which to transmit messages about the importance of making decisions about managing our environment on a firm foundation of scientific knowledge. This exhibition at the Royal Society is part of our effort to transmit this knowledge to as wide an audience as possible”.

The exhibition is held annually at the London premises of the Royal Society, the UK national academy of science. A total of 24 exhibits have been competitively selected from universities and companies throughout the UK. Each exhibit presents science, engineering or technology through visually engaging and interactive displays. The researchers themselves are on- hand to give insights into the science on show. More than 4,000 people are expected through the doors over the four days of the exhibition. The Summer Science Exhibition takes place at the Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG. For more information, visit http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/event.asp?id=2914&month=7,2005

ENDS

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 cg24@st-andrews.ac.uk; Ref: press releases/royalsocsmru View the latest University news at http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk

For further information about the Royal Society and the Summer Science Exhibition, contact Tim Watson, Press and Public Relations, The Royal Society, London – 0207 451 2508/2510

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