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Explore the world of the Weddell seal

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Brigid Veale
Published
4 June 2009
Using underwater cameras, hydrophones and telemetry equipment Professor Jesse Purdy has captured world-first images of the amazing underwater world of the Weddell seal under the fast-ice of McMurdo Sound in the Antarctic.

In a bid to understand the social behaviour of the Weddell seal and how they survive in such a harsh environment, Professor Purdy spent two seasons gathering the stunning underwater footage which has now been made into a documentary.

Professor Purdy, a comparative psychologist with Southwestern University in Texas, is in Australia for a collaborative project with Southern Cross University’s psychology department and will be showing the documentary as part of a free public seminar on the Weddell seal at the Coffs Harbour campus on June 10.

Professor Purdy said his work explored the concept developed by Jakob von Uexkull of the ‘umwelt’ or ‘self-world’ of an organism.

“If you really want to understand animal behaviour we have to understand that animal’s self-world and understand that it is different from ours,” he said. “Animals don’t share the same experiences.

“An eagle, for example, can see with much greater resolution than we can. All of these things change the way that animal behaves. What we see might not have any relevance – we have to step out of our own worlds in order to understand what’s really going on.

“We need to try to get a sense of their world.”

His presentation in Coffs Harbour will include the documentary, produced by Professor Purdy and Professor Randall Davis, with assistance from Gisela Kaufmann and Carsten Orlt, which took first place in the Jack Ward Film competition sponsored by the Animal Behaviour Society in the United States.

To collect the images, non-pregnant females were fitted with cameras and a range of other equipment to track their movements, measure their speed, the depth and the movement of their tails. A camera and hydrophone were also suspended 15 metres below the bottom of the ice, looking up at the entry hole.

“I was interested in their social behaviour. Using this equipment we can combine what’s going on, on top of the ice, with what’s going on below the ice,” he said.

Professor Purdy’s work on animal behaviour has included killer whales, salmon, and the learning capacity of cuttlefish which led to another award-winning documentary ‘The Brainy Bunch’.

Professor Purdy is now working closely with Southern Cross University’s psychology department and has set up a fish trial, at the National Marine Science Centre, investigating the capacity of farm-raised fish to learn new behaviours.

The presentation ‘Weddell World: A seal’s eye view of Antarctica’ will be held on Wednesday, June 10, at Southern Cross University’s Coffs Harbour campus, D Block theatre, at 6pm. RSVP to [email protected] or phone 66593183.

Photo: Get a seal's eye view of the Antarctic at a presentation by Professor Jesse Purdy.