PHATS goes large !
Isle of May field season 2016
The big event for the PHATS team each year is the Isle of May field season, when we set up our lab in Fluke St- the old lighthouse keepers' cottages, collect the samples and do the experimental work for our project. The Isle of May is a small island in the Firth of Forth. To get out there we enlist the help of the skipper and crew of the May Princess, which allows us to get lab supplies and equipment onto the island unscathed! Once there we have to get the incubators, sterile tissue culture workstation, water baths and freezers up and running.
Then it’s out into colony to find out which females from the long term monitoring programme have come ashore to have their pups. That means getting dressed in very warm clothes and oilskins – its chilly and very, very muddy on a grey seal breeding colony! Not to mention the need to have eyes in the back of your head and the need to stay low, stay calm and stay out of the way of the animals. The animals don't tend to get cold though, because they have some fascinating physiological adaptations. You can read more of the blog Kimberley wrote abiout thermoregulation in seals (hosted by the SNH NNR Isle of May blog) here: https://isleofmaynnr.wordpress.com/2016/11/24/how-do-seal-pups-stay-warm/ and here: https://isleofmaynnr.wordpress.com/2016/11/25/how-do-seal-pups-stay-warm-part-2/
We monitor the seals throughout the season to find out when they give birth, when they wean their pups and how much weight mum loses and pup gains. That helps us find out whether pollutants in blubber influencing how effectively fat can be transferred (via milk) from mum to pup. After the mum leaves the colony, the pup sticks around for a while, mostly sleeping. We keep a close eye on these pups and weigh them to find out how much body mass they lose before they go to sea for the first time. Again, we're interested if mass loss rate is influenced by pollutants in fat.
Our experiments involve taking small amounts of blubber, which is made of lots of fat cells, and keeping it alive in the lab overnight in special 'tissue clture media' - really a mix of salts, sugars and other nutrients. We investigate how blubber reacts to hormones that normally regulate fat accumulation or mobilisation in humans. We also test whether the reaction of the fat is altered by the presence of pollutants. This will help us to see if pollutants that accumulate in blubber can alter how seals lay down fat or mobilise it as a metabolic fuel. You can find out more about the PHATS team activities on the Isle of May by visiting Kelly’s blog.
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