Chance Encounter With Seal Leads To Children's Book On Antarctica

November 8, 2006

A chance encounter with a wayward seal by an Antarctic research team has led to an engaging children's book by a University of Colorado at Boulder professor describing the beat of life in the continent's desolate Dry Valleys.

Titled "The Lost Seal," the book describes the unexpected discovery of a Weddel seal pup that strayed from the sea ice of McMurdo Sound into the Dry Valleys region, where Professor Diane McKnight and her colleagues were conducting research in 1990. The book then chronicles the eventual rescue of the seal, weaving in educational information about the cold desert ecosystem in the Dry Valleys unfamiliar to most school children, said McKnight.

"We hope this book will give children an understanding about the extreme environment in Antarctica and a sense of the rhythm of life there," said McKnight, a professor in the civil, architectural and environmental engineering department who is a fellow of CU-Boulder's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

"Along the way, we tried to teach them some microbiology and hydrology, and to describe what it is like to be a scientist working in the field."

Illustrated by Dorothy Emerling, "The Lost Seal" also contains illustrations and comments by dozens of elementary school students from Australia, New Zealand, England and the United States, including Bixby School in Boulder. Participating students were shown video taken in Antarctica in 1990 and were familiar with the story line, McKnight said.

The book recounts the story of how the seal was first discovered on a patch of snow near the research camp in December 1990. The researchers were not allowed to interact with the seal because of the Antarctic Conservation Act, which protects wildlife there from interference by humans. Wildlife biologists from nearby McMurdo Sound identified the seal as a one-year-old that was tagged with an identification marker as a pup on the ice at McMurdo Sound, about five miles away.

A few days later when the seal appeared at base camp, a decision was made to return the seal to McMurdo Sound after considering additional provisions of the Antarctic Conservation Act pertaining to human and animal life, according to McKnight. The seal was airlifted safely in a cargo net by a helicopter to McMurdo Sound, a harrowing 10-minute ride.

The book concludes by explaining how McKnight and her colleagues worked with officials to formally name Lost Seal Stream, which is one of the major streams flowing into frozen Lake Fryxell in the Taylor Valley.

"It is a name that not only commemorates the long, hard journey of a young seal, but also celebrates the first recorded encounter of humans and a live seal in the polar desert of the Dry Valleys," McKnight writes in the book. "Today, anyone visiting those valleys in Antarctica might not see any seals, but they would be able to find Lost Seal Stream and imagine the adventures of one young Weddell seal."

McKnight has been working in Antarctica since 1987, studying extreme life at the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research site funded by the National Science Foundation. She and her colleagues have been analyzing freeze-dried algae and microbes that can lay dormant during the winter in the stream beds. In the harsh polar environment, stream channels flow only a few weeks out of the year and the only life forms inhabiting the area, besides the wayward seal, are microorganisms, mosses, lichens and a few groups of invertebrates.

The book was published by LTER's Schoolyard Program and Moonlight Publishing LLC of Boulder in collaboration with the NSF, CU-Boulder and the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University. It was timed to coincide with the International Polar Year, which will feature two seasons of fieldwork in the arctic and Antarctic by scientists worldwide beginning in March 2007 using satellites, rovers, climate stations, GPS technology and supercomputers to better understand the role the polar regions play in global processes. _

More information about the book and hundreds of additional children's illustrations and background information regarding "The Lost Seal" are on the Web at: www.mcmlter.org/lostseal/. Books are available at area bookstores for $19.95 or can be ordered on the Web at: www.moonlight-publishing.com .

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