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Antarctic seal research trip is dream come true


Dr. Julie Richmond has dreamt about this meeting for years. Theirs was a long-distance relationship separated by continents and thousands of miles.

But the day had finally come when they could meet face-to-face — or face to muzzle in this case. Measuring in at 10-feet-tall and weighing nearly 1,100 pounds, she's even more dwarfed than she expected. However, the size difference hardly matters. This meeting has been in the back of her mind for years, and nothing could deter her.

Richmond is a University of North Florida biology professor who recently traveled to Antarctica to study Weddell seals, the subjects of years of extensive research. Richmond was part of a six-person research team that traveled to Antarctica from Nov. 11 to Dec. 19 and was based at McMurdo Station on the southern tip of New Zealand-claimed Ross Island. They worked with Weddell seals, a relatively common — yet seriously blubbery — species with a genial disposition, making them easier to study than other more aggressive creatures. Up to this point, Richmond's only worked with data and samples from seal test subjects in the lab. This trip put her face-to-face with the huge mammals as they sunned themselves on slabs of dense sea ice.

“It's been a dream of mine to research in the Antarctic,” Richmond said. “It's really valuable to be there physically and work with the species in person. All species have small nuances of behavior that influence the type of data that can be collected. Understanding the logistics of the research is only capable out there in the field.”

The National Science Foundation funded-project was led by Dr. Jennifer Burns, a biology professor at University of Alaska Anchorage, and dealt with some of the key life events for a Weddell seal, such as pupping (giving birth to young) and molting (shedding fur). The average temperature at McMurdo station in Antarctica during the trip varied between -30 and -40, with wind gusts close to 30 mph.

“There's no better wake-up call than going from Florida to Antarctica,” Richmond said. “That kind of cold can't be adequately described. It's otherworldly. There's not much that can prepare you for that kind of weather.” 

The expedition was part of a four-year research phase, and Richmond was in the first group to travel to McMurdo Station in Antarctica. The expedition, however, was nearly derailed before it even started thanks to a weeks-long delay brought about by the 2013 federal government shutdown. The team was on pins-and-needles waiting to hear if they would be making the trip at all.

"It was a bumpy road to get there once the shutdown hit," Richmond said. "There was a very extensive process of qualifying for the trip, like medical visits and health screenings. We had all qualified, and then the shutdown stopped all the research and the travel. We were just sitting there. Hoping and waiting."

After the government was restarted, federal officials analyzed the projects that were on hold and fast-tracked the Weddell seal research team. Richmond had 10 days notice before she hopped on a plane headed to the coldest environment she'd ever experienced. Despite years of research work in the North Pacific, she said nothing could prepare her for the Antarctic chill. She stocked up on cold weather gear and hoped for the best, warmed by the fact that she was about to leave on a trip that would mark the culmination of years of research.

The crux of that research focused on the pupping process. Female Weddell seals give birth to pups in October. The lactation process lasts about two months, and the pup is left alone to learn to hunt while its mother continues to mate with other dominant males. Richmond said the females become pregnant immediately even though the embryonic implantation process is delayed, leaving all pups to be birthed at the same time every year. Nursing the pups is a taxing process for the females, often leading them to sacrifice nearly 40 percent of their weight during lactation. The seals also molt shortly after the nursing process. These two life events are huge determinants in the survival and long-term fitness of the animal. The research team focused on gathering data on the seals during the winter, given that there is little information about the species' movement around that time. The team monitored the movements and behavior patterns of seal subjects via satellite instruments glued to the animals fur.

One of the interesting takeaways from the initial research round was that the females who didn't give birth in November were molting earlier than those who did. That may be because these “skip breeders” had more energy reserves than the breeders, Richmond said. Further studies by the team will analyze how the changing Arctic environment is impacting the lives of their seal subjects. With the steady disappearance of sea ice from their natural habitats, the seals will relocate, changing their behavior patterns and growth totals.

UNF biology students will also be able to benefit from Richmond's research. She said she's already weaving her research findings into her coursework. Even while she was gone, she kept her students up-to-date about her travels and studies via social media posts and pictures.

“They loved to see pictures from the expedition,” she said. “Some of them probably haven't seen snow, much less a place that's nothing but snow.”

Dan Moon, chair of the Biology Department, said this kind of faculty research opportunity is integral to the development of unique, relevant and timely coursework, a core element of a UNF education.

“Students are much more engaged when they can relate their in-class instruction to real world examples,” Moon said. “That's exactly what Dr. Richmond is doing, and it's invaluable.”

Richmond said plans are being discussed for her to return to McMurdo Station and continue her research — this time with two UNF graduate student research assistants in tow. Interim Provost Dr. Earle Traynham said this kind of research opportunity for a graduate student is nearly unheard of, and it shows how UNF students often have access to dynamic hands-on learning opportunities that students at other universities wouldn't be able to experience.

“Dr. Richmond's research is cutting-edge, and her students will be able to be a part of that,” Traynham said. “That kind of research access will be a resume builder for them, and they'll have professional and research experience that will trump students from many other universities.”

For her part, Richmond said she's grateful to see a lifetime of academic work come to fruition with this research expedition. The nights spent developing lesson plans, slaving over research proposals and hoping beyond hope that she'd be able to see the Weddell seal in its natural habitat finally paid off. And it's an experience she'll never forget.

“As an academic, all of your work is building toward one big thing,” she said. “I got to that point where I was able to see the fruits of my research, and I can’t wait to go back and finish the job.”


•Editor's Note - Dr. Julie Richmond's name is now Dr. Julie Avery. You can reach her at