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Mummified seal - Dry Valleys

The Dry Valleys have a number of odd phenomena, one of which is the occasional mummified seal many miles from the sea. Crabeater and Weddell seals have been found up to 40 miles from the sea and at altitudes of up to 5000 feet. These corpses have been carbon dated and found to often be hundreds of years old and up to 2600 years old.

They often appear to be much younger than this having died relatively recently. The cold drying winds desiccate the carcass quickly and lead to mummification, a lack of carrion feeders and decay mean that there is only the wind blown dust and sand to make the carcass break down along with the effects of freeze thaw and the summer sun. The newer ones (a mere hundred years or so old) are very well preserved, but as they age they start to disintegrate until only scattered and slowly eroding bones are left.

There are places where there are several of these carcasses are found in the same position giving the impression that they arrived together, though closer investigation has shown that they have simply been funnelled by the landscape to the same position and in fact differ in date of arrival and death by decades.

No-one is exactly sure how or why these seals end up in the middle of the Dry Valleys in such horribly inhospitable conditions and after what must have been such a dreadful journey to get there, but there are some indications.

Most of the seals examined are juveniles, less than a year old, it is thought that they simply take the wrong direction on the annual seasonal migration north as the winter arrives and start to head inland instead. Some of them are heading for the glaciers and it may be that once lost, they see the ice and start to head that way.

The story told by the carcasses is quite sad, there is often minimal blubber left, suggesting it has been used up on the extended trek. Some of the seals have injuries and significant blood loss where they are found indicating bleeding immediately prior to death (possibly from cuts from rocks?). The seals have stomachs that are totally empty of food as might be expected, but some have appreciable amounts of sand, gravel and small stones from the immediate environment, much more so than seals that have access to the sea implying that they are attempting to eat what is available to them. Ultimately they seem to starve to death, though some are found at the bases of small cliffs having fallen off and others have much blood-sodden sand nearby and injuries that would fit with this.

There have been a much smaller number of penguin carcasses found in similar circumstances, this may be because penguins are less likely to get lost, because as they can walk rather than crawl across the terrain more easily, perhaps they can find their way back to the sea more easily or that as they are considerably smaller than the seals, perhaps their carcasses break up more quickly.

Thankfully, this seems to be a fairly rare occurrence with a study showing that one seal every 4-8 years enters the valley system and dies - link below.

More information (external site)

seal mummy
An older Dry Valley mummified seal in an advanced state of disintegration
Photograph by: Kristan Hutchison National Science Foundation

Picture courtesy of Mike Usher - Mike went on a Ross Sea expedition on board the Kapitan Khlebnikov in 2005.
You can purchase a selection of Mike's pictures here

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