Scientists put trackers on Antarctic seals to help them map the ocean floor.
The deep-diving seals uncovered a massive underwater canyon more than a mile deep.
This canyon may help scientists predict how the Antarctic ice sheet will react to the climate crisis.
Seals wear many hats — ambassadors for the Antarctic, friends to whales, and award-winning models. Their new hat has a scientific purpose, helping researchers discover the unseen parts of the ocean floor.
By strapping devices that measure depth, temperature, and salt levels to seals' heads, scientists discovered a huge underground canyon in Vincennes Bay in Antarctica that stretches up to 7,217 feet deep, or about 1.3 miles.
Clive McMahon, one of the ecologists at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science who ran the study, said the seals were "heroes" in an email to Insider.
To highlight their heroics, the scientists suggested naming the canyon Mirounga-Nuyina, after the scientific name for the elephant-seal species, in a paper published in the journal Nature Communications Earth & Environment.
These seal scientists aren't just helping us map unknown parts of the ocean; they're also helping scientists predict how the Antarctic ice sheet might react to the climate crisis, according to the study.
What this canyon can show us about the future of Antarctica's ice
Understanding ocean geography helps scientists predict how Antarctica's ice sheet has reacted to global climate change in the past. Like how the Grand Canyon shows the pathway of an ancient river, these underwater features also give us an idea about how water moved in the past.
"By mapping these deep troughs and mountain ranges, we have therefore added a key piece of the puzzle to help understand how the East Antarctic Ice Sheet may have responded to past change and how it may do so in the future," Fausto Ferraccioli, who studies these underwater formations but was not involved in the study, told NBC.
They also give scientists an idea of the thinner points of the Antarctic ice sheets, cluing them into what is more at risk of melting. The researchers told the Australian Center for Excellence in Aquatic Science, which contributed to the study, that water from the canyon could move around the ice sheet, which might melt it more quickly when it's warmed by climate change.
"This knowledge is essential for scientists trying to measure ice-sheet melt rates," McMahon, the lead researcher on the paper, told the ACEAS.
How they got the hat on the seal
Because of extreme temperatures and pressure deep underwater, it's difficult to build and operate ships that can dive into the depths of the oceans and return intact. That's where deep-diving seals come in.
Antarctic seals, such as the 50 Weddell seals and 215 southern elephant seals they tagged, regularly travel to great depths of the ocean.
In 2021, the researchers from the seal study suggested that placing sensors on the animals, which were headed down into the water anyway, could be a cheaper and more effective way to map the features of the Antarctic Ocean.
They did this by attaching the sensors "with adhesive to the hair on the seals' heads." In response to concerns about the animal's well-being, the Australian Antarctic Program Partnership, a partner in the study, said on X that seals shed this hair each year, which meant the seals performed their duty without any pain.
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