Students from elementary school to the college level can follow a Colorado State University biology researcher as he embarks on a 10-week trip to McMurdo Station in Antarctica to study the physiology of the Weddell seal, one of nature’s most proficient divers.
Through a Web-based learning component of the project, students can learn from Shane Kanatous, a member of the College of Natural Sciences’ Department of Biology, as he charts his research on the Web site at ExtremePhysiology.biology.colostate.edu.
Kanatous and his team will be working to better understand what changes young Weddell seals go through as they age and develop an incredible ability to dive underwater for extended periods of time.
"We are going to Antarctica because the Weddell seal is one of the elite divers in the world," Kanatous said, noting they can spend a maximum of an hour and 20 minutes underwater. "What we are ultimately trying to figure out is how an air-breathing mammal can function so long without breathing."
Kanatous and his team will work to better understand the molecular signals that regulate changes in physiology of Weddell seals’ skeletal muscle as the mammals age. One interesting aspect, for example, is these animals do not get heart disease, Kanatous noted. Weddell seals can grow to more than 9 feet long and weigh up to 1,200 pounds. Because they have no natural land predators in Antarctica, Weddell seals are fairly docile, making them excellent research subjects.
The research project is funded through a grant of $1.2 million from the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs.
Students can join Kanatous and his team as they collect research data without having to endure Antarctica’s subzero temperatures and constant 40 mph winds. Each week, Kanatous will provide updates about what the team has been doing and ask a challenge question, the answer to which will be provided in the following week’s update. Perspectives and impressions from five different researchers also will be part of the weekly reports. The first Fort Collins-area school to sign up for the program is Poudre School District’s Putnam School of Science.
The educational outreach portion of the program is important to Kanatous. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and of Hispanic descent, Kanatous overcame many obstacles to become a biologist – he’ll be taking his sixth research trip to Antarctica.
"We set up this Web site to serve as inspiration," Kanatous said. "If I can come out of the city and do this research, anyone can."
Teachers interested in signing up to take part in the program can log on to ExtremePhysilogy.biology.colostate.edu for more information.