CU Grad Student: The Strange Case of the Mummy Seals

A mummified seal in the  high altitudes of Antarctica. Photo by CU Boulder INSTAAR graduate student Alex Mass from her blog, "The Last Degrees."

Alex Mass / Last Degrees

In the latest newsletter from the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at the University of Colorado Boulder, graduate student Alex Mass – who is on her third research season in Antarctica – reports on the weird phenomena of mummified seals.

In Mass’ blog, “The Last Degrees,” a reference to the highest latitudes and lowest temperatures on earth, she describes the mummified seals as an “infamous enigma” of the Dry Valleys, a parched, higher altitude region dozens of miles from the coast.

“Seals aren’t uncommon in Antarctica, but they live in the ocean and generally only make landfall for shorter periods, very close to the coast. What brought them 45 miles inland and up to elevations of 5900 feet above sea level is the mystery,” she writes, in a Dec. 14 posting.

Alex Mass

Alex Mass

Scientists generally believe the seals can become disoriented, pulling themselves astray and disoriented up into the mountains, where they eventually starve, she reports. Recent carbon testing of  the mummified crabeater seals determined that the remains were up to 2,600 years old.

Given that there are millions of crabeater seals on the Antarctica coast, and given the number of those mummified far away, Mass estimates that only one seal makes its way into the mountains every eight years.

Definitely an intriguing mystery from the southernmost continent.

“In other news,” she wrote, “it snowed the other day. This may not seem like a big deal considering the fact that I’m living in Antarctica, but it’s incredibly unusual for it to snow much in the Dry Valleys. This region gets an average of 5cm (about 2 inches) of snowfall per year, and hasn’t seen significant rain in over two million years.”

It isn’t without reason, she writes, that they call it the Dry Valleys.

2 thoughts on “CU Grad Student: The Strange Case of the Mummy Seals

  1. Greetings from Antarctica! It’s great to see articles being published about the work we’re doing down here. If there’s any other information you’d like about the specific research we’re doing, feel free to send us an email; we’d love to help get the word out on what’s being done in the more remote corners of the world.

    Happy Holidays,

    Alex

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