NOAA Fisheries News Releases
April 11, 2006
Labrador Retrievers Assist Ringed Seal Researchers
Research biologists from the University of Alaska, NOAA Fisheries and the Alaska Nanuuq Commission depend on canine co-workers to sniff out ringed seals on the vast snow-covered plains of the far north.
Dr. Brendan Kelly, Jamberry, and Cooper search the Beaufort Sea ice for seal breathing holes. Photo: University of Alaska Southeast
University of Alaska Southeast Dean of Arts and Sciences Dr. Brendan Kelly and research associate John Moran, NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center Polar Ecosystems Program Leader Dr. Peter Boveng, and Rex Snyder from the Alaska Nanuuq Commission use Labrador retrievers to find ringed seal breathing holes and lairs under the snow. The researchers hope to learn more about ringed seal annual movement, breeding site fidelity and population structure to predict the impact of decreasing sea ice and early snowmelt on ringed seals in the Arctic.
Kelly learned how to use Labrador retrievers to find ringed seals from an Inuit hunter in the Northwest Territories of Canada. The dogs run ahead of the researchers’ snow machines. Hand signals direct the dogs to find ‘natchiq’ - Inupiaq for ringed seal. When the dogs find the scent of a seal they run in a zig-zag pattern, which gets shorter and shorter as they get closer to anything with seal odor—a breathing hole or lair. A lair is a snow cave above a breathing hole in the ice. A seal swims to the breathing hole and can haul out into the snow cave. Female seals have several lairs and may leave a pup in one of them.
Once the Labradors pinpoint the seal scent, they start digging. Kelly and his co-workers call away the dogs and set up a live-capture net on the discovered breathing hole. The nets keep the seals from diving back into the water after they come up for air, enabling the biologists to take skin and hair samples, and attach satellite tags to the seals.
“This project combines NOAA Fisheries’ experience with satellite telemetry - studies of movement and habitat use - with the specialized techniques of Kelly’s team for locating and capturing seals. NOAA’s past experience with satellite tracking enabled us to develop a new flipper-attached satellite tag that allows us to track the seals for potentially more than a year, which is necessary to answer the question about breeding site fidelity. In the past we hadn’t been able to do that, because the older satellite tags were glued to the seal’s hair and fell off during the annual molt,” explained Boveng.
Jamberry sniffing a ringed seal lair in the Beaufort Sea ice. Photo: University of Alaska Southeast
Kelly and Boveng track the movements of satellite-tagged adult seals between breeding seasons. They hope to track and identify forty seals between 2005 and 2006 in Peard Bay and Point Barrow, Alaska. In recent years, the group has tagged seals in Prudhoe Bay and Kotzebue Sound, Alaska, as well as Resolute Bay and Inuvik, Canada.
Kelly tried finding seals without canine assistance, using a camera with an infrared sensor. “It didn’t really work as a survey tool, unless I already knew where a seal hole was,” Kelly said. “The dogs have an 80 to 85 percent success rate in the five to ten kilometer radius we search around our campsites. They find 100 to 200 holes in a month.”
Weather conditions affect how frequently biologists and their dogs can search for seal lairs. Wind can impact a dog’s ability to pick up a scent and locate its source accurately. “If we didn’t have the dogs, we’d have to wait until late spring to look for caves exposed by melting snow, and we’d miss the pupping season,” says Kelly.
Kelly trained his first Labrador to find ringed seals by using seal-skin slippers that he buried in the snow. A better method, he reports, is by taking a young dog out with an experienced dog to learn to associate the command ‘natchiq’ with finding the smell of a seal. A University of Alaska Southeast student will take her young dog out with Kelly’s experienced dog in Peard Bay this year.
The biologists also collect skin from the breathing holes. Seals molt in the spring and early summer and leave black dandruff-like flakes on the ice around their breathing holes. The skin samples are used for DNA analysis to see if genes are being exchanged between sub-populations.
“We have learned that adult ringed seals use the same breeding sites annually, but through the satellite tags and DNA analysis, we are trying to find out if the pups are breeding with seals from other sub-populations. Seals that breed outside their subgroup are less vulnerable to extinction,” Kelly explained.
“Compared to other pinniped species that NOAA Fisheries manages, the status of the four ice seal species is not well known. In order for us to be effective in managing them, we need to have a better understanding of the basic population biology of these species,” said Boveng.
The tagging research has shown that ringed seals are emerging from their lairs earlier, corresponding with earlier snowmelt. Breathing holes and lairs under the snow protect the ringed seals, especially the young, which are born and nursed within the lairs.“Early snowmelt exposes ringed seal pups prematurely and increases their mortality rates from exposure to the cold, and exposure to predators like polar bears, arctic fox and birds,” Kelly explained.
NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) is dedicated to protecting and preserving our nation’s living marine resources through scientific research, management, enforcement, and the conservation of marine mammals and other protected marine species and their habitat. To learn more about NOAA Fisheries in Alaska, please visit our websites at www.fakr.noaa.gov or www.afsc.noaa.gov.