Once again the time for the PHATS team to leave the Isle of May has come round, and this year the field season has absolutely flown by. As sad as it is to leave, we’ve had an incredibly successful time on the island and collected all the data that we were hoping to gather, which is great as this will be the last breeding season we have to work on before the PHATS project ends in August. I’m already back on the mainland as earlier in the week I brought off all the samples we collected to make sure they were safely transferred to Abertay University without getting defrosted, and the last three members of the team will be coming home tomorrow.
The colony has emptied over the last week and there are hardly any weaned seals left anymore, let alone adults. We did get to see a familiar seal face during December however, as one particular female seal came up beside our house on the island to rear her pup last year, and this year she did exactly the same! Known affectionately as the ‘Lady of the Lake’ due to her habit of going for a swim in the reservoir at the end of Fluke street (where our house is), she is a particularly laid back seal who has successfully raised two pups in that location over the last two years. We don’t know why she decided to come up the road to raise her pup so far away from the other seals, but now she’s been here for two years it would be interesting to see if she continues to return to that spot in the future, or if other female seals followed her example. How breeding seals form new colonies and why some parts of the island are really dense with seals while other parts are empty are all a mystery currently so we can’t really guess what is motivating her to chose such an unusual location to rear her pup. When studying the seals on the island, we often have to look for flipper tags to recognise them, but as grey seals have stable spotty patterns on their fur you can also use that to identify the same individual every year, if you have a picture of them. This is how we know the ‘Lady’ is the same seal, and such photo ID methods are pretty common in the marine mammal world to repeatedly identify individuals in the wild.
The PHATS team will be back out in the field in early January 2018, when we will return to the Isle of May to look for moulting grey seals that are a year or two old to study. We will resume blog updates then, so in the meantime we all wish you Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year and hopefully see you in 2018!
However, one of the few positive things about combating marine litter is that there are lots ways that everyone can make small changes in their lives to make real reductions in the plastic going into our environment. Here are just a few, try them and be part of the solution!
Get a re-usable water bottle (or coffee mug if you drink more of that than water!), and use water fountains to refil it through the day rather than buy bottled water. If there isn’t a water dispenser at your place of work, talk to your bosses to get one installed for everyone to use.
Get re-usable shopping bags to use instead of disposable ones from supermarkets.
Say you don’t need a straw at bars and restuarants.
If you don’t have any use for something you own anymore, try giving it to a charity shop, or making it into something new rather than throwing it to landfill. Coming up with creative ways to re-use things can be lots of fun, as well as saving you money and helping the environment.
If you are out for a walk and see some litter blowing around, pick it up! Then you can dispose of it properly at the next opertunity. Ever piece of trash picked up and taken to a bin is one less piece of garbage that will end up in the sea.
It’s not only litter and plastics that make up the marine debris problem. Fishing gear can also be deadly for marine life, types include:
The links between these negative impacts and microplastic exposure are still being uncovered, however it is thought that some of the problems associated with accumulating microplastics in the body may relate to the chemical pollutants held within the plastics. Several correlations between high microplastic ingestion rates and high concentrations of a variety of pollutants have been found marine species (e.g. these sea birds). However, correlations do not always equate to causality, and there are also studies showing no links between pollutant concentrations in plastic debris and pollutant burden in individuals eating the debris. One thing is sure however, microplastics in the marine environment are not going away anytime soon, and more work is needed to understand the problem and its consequences for marine organisms. The PHATS team that I am part of is working to uncover the physiological affects of persistent organic pollutants (or POPs, e.g. PCBs) on fat tissue from seals, and we need to understand how individuals get exposed to pollutants. Microplastic ingestion may represent an additional, significant route of exposure to these harmful chemicals in addition to those that are eaten when bound to the fatty tissues of prey speices, that have bioaccumulated up the food chain. Hopefully in the coming years, the mechanisms underlying POPs bound to microplastics, and their absorption into the tissues of marine organisms that ingest them, will become clearer.
Our research for the PHATS project on the Isle of May is going really well, and almost all of our study pups are now weaned from their mothers. Watching the pups go from skinny, fluffy newborns to massively fat, sleek weaners in just over two weeks is always a part of our work that fascinates me; it’s incredible that they can put on so much mass in such a short time frame. Soon the weaned pups will start leaving the island to go to sea for the first time, and their large blubber reserves will hopefully tide them over until they can learn how to fish by themselves.
As it’s getting into the late part of the season for the research team here on the island, we’ve also had lots of human comings and goings in the last week. We’ve had a film crew out from the BBC winter watch team, so hopefully footage of the Isle of May seals and some of the science done on the island will be coming to TV soon. Almost half of the research team has also returned back to the mainland, including the PHATS team leader Dr Kimberley Bennett, who has to get back to the University of Abertay to continue her lecturing duties. As the season continues, the team will probably drop to fewer than 4 people, who will stay out to finish the research work and then close up the island for the holiday season. We won’t be gone for long though, as the PHATS team are already planning our return in early January!