Big Sky Roundup

MSU: Ecologist Jay Rotella receives $1.4M NSF grant to continue Antarctica research 

By: - July 14, 2022 5:05 pm

Each year from October to mid-December, the team travels to Erebus Bay, along the Ross Sea, to tag every newborn pup with individually numbered tags on their hind flipper and to record the identity of each pup’s mother. Rotella estimates that approximately 28,000 seals have been tagged and tracked since the inception of the research project. (Provided photo was taken under NMFS Permits 1032-1917, 17236, and 21158/The Daily Montanan)

With a five-year, $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation, a Montana State University ecologist will continue what is likely the longest marine mammal study in the southern hemisphere, MSU said Thursday in a news release.

Jay Rotella, a professor in the Department of Ecology in MSU’s College of Letters and Science, will continue a five-decade-long project to study the Weddell seals of Antarctica’s Ross Sea, the news release said.

MSU said the new phase of research will incorporate new population modeling and DNA testing to learn more about the environmental influences on seal populations while attempting to determine the geographic origin of immigrant seals and the role they play in the local population.

“On long-term projects, we get to dig in and ask questions we wouldn’t have thought of 10 or 20 years ago,” Rotella said in a statement. “That’s one of the most exciting parts – asking more refined questions and just gradually picking away at those and learning as we go.”

Rotella and his now-retired research partner Bob Garrott took over the Weddell research project in 2001 from colleague Don Siniff at the University of Minnesota, MSU said. Initiated by Siniff, the study is one of the longest-running animal population studies in the world, the news release noted.

“This is an incredibly prestigious award in terms of the competitiveness of the NSF as a funding agency,” said Diane Debinski, head of MSU’s Department of Ecology, in a statement. “Dr. Rotella and his colleagues have one of the few studies of this character across the globe. It is truly impressive.”

According to the news release, each year from October to mid-December, the team travels to Erebus Bay, along the Ross Sea, to tag every newborn pup on their hind flipper and to record the identity of each pup’s mother. Rotella estimates that approximately 28,000 seals have been tagged and tracked since the inception of the research project.

“We’re able to learn about lifetime outcomes for many thousands of females, which is quite remarkable for learning about how survival and reproduction rates vary with age and among different individuals and how those rates change with different environmental conditions,” Rotella said in the news release.

In the early 2000s, for instance, the largest icebergs ever recorded broke off the continental ice shelf and changed the ice dynamics for Weddell seals for several years, MSU said. At the same time, commercial fishing in the area grew, decreasing the food available to the seals.

“We had a large drop in seal numbers for a few years, but in the last 15 years, we’ve seen a general and notable increase in the population’s productivity,” he said in a statement. The impacts of these factors on the survival and persistence of the seals are a major focus of the study.

The intensive monitoring of the local seal population has uncovered an increase in new adult Weddell seals that weren’t born in Erebus Bay. The reason for the increase in immigrant seals is still being determined, but it may have implications for how the ecosystem is doing, he said.

Rotella and his research partners will sample the DNA of immigrant and local Weddell seals to identify where they originate based on their genetic signatures.

“We will travel to other colonies and sample the genetics of the females there to see if we can find a match to our immigrant seals,” he said.

The researchers will also analyze NASA satellite imagery and partner with sea ice experts to study how changes in the ice may influence the immigration of Weddell seals.

“It’s a real privilege to get to work in a place like Antarctica,” he said. “The place is spectacular, and the animals are fascinating. To continue to do this work and to involve so many Montana State students is a privilege and a thrill.”

Read the full news release from MSU at http://www.montana.edu/news/22208

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