Ancient Seal Remains Reveal Warmer Antarctica, Study Says

Adrianne Appel
for National Geographic News
June 26, 2006

In an Antarctic "ghost town," freeze-dried whiskers, skin, and bones provide evidence that the South Pole was a much warmer place not too long ago, a new study reveals.

The 1,000- to 6,000-year-old elephant seal remains were found in abandoned breeding colonies in a now barren region of Victoria Land on the Antarctic coast near the Ross Sea (map of Antarctica).

The discovery, scientists say, is the first hard evidence for a warming period in the region between 2,300 and 1,100 years ago.

An earlier warming period, between 6,000 and 4,000 years ago, has been recognized by other researchers and is believed to have been widespread, at least throughout the Southern Hemisphere.

But evidence for this more recent warming had not been observed until now, says Brenda Hall, a glacial geologist at the University of Maine in Orono.

"Nobody has seen the warming we have noted—certainly not in the Ross Sea, of this magnitude and duration observed—in the seal record," Hall said.

Hall and co-authors present their work in today's issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Seal and Penguin Switch

Elephant seals are named for their huge size—adult males can be as heavy as 4 tons (3.6 metric tons)—and for the males' inflatable, trunklike snout (photo: elephant seals battle for mates).

The animals were heavily hunted in the 19th century and currently number about 600,000.

Southern elephant seals thrive in a sub-Antarctic climate and require a coastal home where they can move between land and sea to breed and molt.

Today many of the marine mammals live near Antarctica, on Australia's Macquarie Island and the U.K.'s South Georgia Island. On these islands they have suitable temperatures and ready access to open water.

Continued on Next Page >>


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