Arctic Science
Radio Script


Seal Hounds

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INTRO: At first glance, the frozen Arctic Ocean appears to be a vast, barren wasteland. Yet beneath the ice and snow, ringed seals go about their lives. For scientists, finding ringed seals in the vast expanse of frozen sea isn't easy. As Doug Schneider reports on this week's Arctic Science Journeys, they call on man's best friend for help.
seal hole

A seal enters a breathing hole.
Photo by L. Quakenbush

STORY: Each winter, as the Arctic Ocean freezes over, ringed seals stay busy bobbing up and down, using their heads to keep breathing holes open through the ice. It's tiring, but necessary work. As the ice thickens and snowdrifts cover the holes, they use huge claws to scratch out small caves, called lairs, atop the ice. Protected from the elements and out of sight of hungry polar bears, the ringed seals can finally rest.

But if you're a scientist studying ringed seals, finding these lairs is like finding a needle in a haystack. Researchers Brendan Kelly and Lori Quakenbush of the University of Alaska Fairbanks say their Labrador retrievers have a nose for the job.

QUAKENBUSH: "We didn't get the idea as much as other people did. Our Canadian colleagues have used dogs to find ringed seals in the Arctic for many years. And they got the idea from the Canadian Inuit, who when they were hunting seals would use a sled dog. They'd unhook a sled dog from the team and it would sniff out a seal hole and dig out the seal hole. And that's where the hunters would hunt. So it was actually a traditional hunting method used by the Canadians."

Each spring, Quakenbush and Kelly set up their tents on the frozen sea ice near Alaska's Prudhoe Bay. Then, using snow machines and skis, they head out in search of ringed seals. Tagging along are Labrador retrievers Jamberry, Raven and Reba.

QUAKENBUSH: "So when the dog gets the scent of the seal, the first thing they do is they pick their head up and hop to try to track the scent. They usually zigzag into the wind. We train the dogs so they think they are in charge. So if they get a seal scent they know we will follow them wherever they go until they get to something. It's a lot of fun for them lead us on these chases across the ice. And then when they get to the scent, it takes them a little while to work around the snowdrift where the seal is. They'll pinpoint the strongest scent and dig there. And then we'll go in and use aluminum probes like avalanche probes and try to find the actual hole through the ice into the water. That's the structure we're looking for."

seal home drawing

Kelly and Quakenbush don't try to catch seals in their lairs, because they say the seals might stop using them. But they do try to catch seals at breathing holes. They rig up a net beneath the ice that's attached to a heavy weight that can be triggered to close across the breathing hole. A microphone planted nearby tells Kelly when a seal comes up to breathe.

KELLY: "We usually hear a seal coming by the water moving and sometimes the seal will blow bubbles under the hole before it surfaces. And if we hear the seal breathing we know it's at the surface, and then we send a coded radio signal out to a device that drops the lead weight which purses the net."

Last year, they caught eight seals this way. Each was weighed, measured and fitted with transmitters. The age of the seal is roughly determined by counting the rings on their toenails—each ring being equal to one year.

KELLY: "From tracking seals that way we've learned a lot about their under-ice home range, about their diving behavior, and we've been able to describe their under-ice ecology as well as make inferences about their social system."

Still unknown is just how many ringed seals call the frozen sea off Alaska their home. Kelly and Quakenbush—with the help of their trusty Labrador retrievers—will try to answer this question when their research continues next spring.

OUTRO: This is Arctic Science Journeys, a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I'm Doug Schneider.

Our thanks to the following individuals for their help in the preparation of this script:

Dr. Brendan Kelly, Assistant Professor
School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences
Fisheries Division
University of Alaska Fairbanks

Lori Quakenbush, Research Associate
School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences
University of Alaska Fairbanks

If you'd like more information about ringed seals, check out these web sites:

Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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