Research that Contributes to Animal Protection
Dr Tracey Rogers
People's Choice Awards
Tracey’s gentle tips to track Antarctic change
It is a fortunate accident that marine biologist Tracey Rogers has a fetish for fiddling with the whiskers of Antarctic predators: fortunate for science that she has uncovered so much about the workings of that mysterious world; fortunate for the predators that she causes such little damage doing so.
As a young marine biologist fresh from a childhood spent combing Queensland beaches, Tracey initially had had no intention of working in Antarctica. A stint working with the leopard seals at Sydney's Taronga Zoo quickly changed that and soon she was heading down to the southernmost continent to stick a microphone beneath the ice and listen to the great predators singing.
"Everyone was saying ‘You won't even see a leopard seal, let alone do any research on them. But by monitoring them underwater, listening to their sounds, we found they were everywhere."
As she has done more work in the beautiful, delicately balanced Antarctic world, Tracey has sought ways to limit the impact her work makes on the natural environment. This has led to a technique to enable scientists to monitor the leopard seals' and other animals' diets by looking at the growth of their whiskers rather than the contents of their stomachs.
Similar to following a tree's growth in the rings of its trunk, the changes in an animal's diet can be followed in the composition of its whiskers. But the value extends far beyond the icecaps as the isotopes being measured are very stable, so it can also be applied to animal specimens caught in the distant past which are now lying hidden in museum backrooms around the world.
"They're like a fabulous window back in time, all these museum collections," says Tracey.
She says that sort of window on history is invaluable at a time when it is vital to put potential changes caused by climate change into context.
"The top predators are often the first to show change and the technique of using the whiskers allows us to go back in time. It allows us to see what happened before the changes and compare that with what's happening now.
"The animals off Western Antarctica are basically no longer top predators. They almost exclusively eat krill and this has happened over nearly five years."
The team Tracey heads has devised and further developed a whole range of other less-invasive animal-monitoring techniques. These include being able to study the health and hormones of whales by examining the residue in their ‘blow' or snot, and measuring the stresses and monitoring the health of populations of seals using the faeces and urine that can be collected on the ice.
"Name a disgusting thing and we've pretty much done it!" says Tracey.
Tracey works at the Evolutionary and Ecology Research Centre at the University of New South Wales and entered her research in the Eureka Prize for Research that Contributes to Animal Protection.
Dr Tracey Rogers
Evolution and Ecology Research Centre, School of BEES, UNSW, NSW