A team of Mass General anesthesia researchers is in Antarctica investigating how Wendell seals cope with periods of oxygen deprivation.
The Mass General research team went to Antarctica to study who Weddell seals cope with oxygen deprivation. (photo: NMFS permit 19439; ACA permit 2016-005)
The Mass General research team went to Antarctica to study who Weddell seals cope with oxygen deprivation. (photo: NMFS permit 19439; ACA permit 2016-005)

The Weddell seal is a champion diving mammal. It can thrive in icy Antarctic waters for extended periods of time while holding its breath, and survive the extreme pressure of deep diving due to its unique physiology.

Since late September, a team from the MGH Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine has been deployed to the largest research base in McMurdo, Antarctica to study these seals and their remarkable ability to sustain periods without oxygen. The trip was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Key physiological features of Weddell seals include their ability to remarkably adjust their cardiovascular system, coordinating blood pressure and blood flow to specific body regions based on their metabolic requirements.

Seals and Oxygen

“As the seals dive and hold their breath – which they can do for more than an hour – oxygen levels in their bodies plummet. If you or I hold our breath for a few minutes, we pass out because we run out of oxygen,” says Emmanuel Buys, PhD, of the MGH Anesthesia Center for Critical Care Research (ACCCR). “We want to understand how Weddell seals can cope with oxygen deprivation. Perhaps if we understand how they deal with lack of oxygen, we can develop strategies to help people who suffer from diseases associated with oxygen deprivation – such as heart attacks or strokes.”

While researching the Wendell seals in Antarctica, members of team B267 sometimes had close encounters with penguins.
While researching the Wendell seals in Antarctica, members of team B267 sometimes had close encounters with penguins.

The team, known as B267, is led by Dr. Buys; Warren Zapol, MD, emeritus anesthetist-in-chief; and Allyson Hindle, PhD, ACCCR researcher. Also on the team is Daniel Costa, PhD, of the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC); Luis Huckstadt, PhD, a UCSC researcher; and Kaitlin Allen, a research technician in the ACCCR. Dr. Zapol has been going on research expeditions to Antarctica since the 1970s.

A Surreal Experience

“The whole experience has been surreal,” says Dr. Buys. “The beauty and harshness of the continent, working with the Weddell seals on the sea ice, coming across penguins and visiting the well-preserved huts of Scott and Shackleton (early explorers to Antarctica) were certainly highlights.”

The team, in addition to studying seals, learned how to travel on the ice via snowmobiles, got up-close and personal with penguins and experienced the bitter cold and beauty that Antarctica has to offer.

“An unexpected bonus was that I got to meet incredible people down here – both scientists and support staff – some of whom I hope to remain friends with long after I leave Antarctica,” says Dr. Buys.

The team is now on their way back from Antarctica, but will continue to share about their trip and findings.

For more information and photos about the group’s time in Antarctica, follow their blog and view photos on Instagram.