Meet 'Henry and Nick,' seals featured in Science study

Who: Guido Dehnhardt, Bjrn Mauck, Wolf Hanke, and Horst Bleckmann, of the Universitt Bonn. Dehnhardt and Mauck are also affiliated with Ruhr-Universitt Bochum in Germany.

What: A study entitled "Hydrodynamic Trail-Following in Harbor Seals," reporting new findings about the sensory abilities of seals.

Where: The Zoo in Cologne, Germany.

When: Findings are in the 6 July 2001 issue of the international journal, Science.

Purpose: The researchers wanted to figure out how seals are able to successfully navigate dark, murky waters to forage for food. Their study shows seals use their highly sensitive whiskers for long distance prey location.

Background: Marine animals must forage for food in dark, murky waters. How do they find their way around in the dark? Some animals, like dolphins, have a special sensory ability called echolocation, where they determine the location of their prey by measuring how long an echo takes to return from it. But pinnipeds, or seals, don't have that ability. Some scientists believed a seal's whiskers were sensitive to the minute water movements made by a swimming fish, but only over short distances. This new study suggests the whiskers play a much bigger role in seal navigation.

Methodology: The team used two seals--"Henry" and "Nick"--in different types of pools. One was filled with naturally murky water, the other with fresh, clear water. They used a custom-made miniature submarine to simulate the hydrodynamic trail a fish leaves in its wake. They measured that water trail and counted the number of times the seals were able to successfully find and follow it.

Experiment: In the first experiment Henry was trained to locate the submarine in the murky water without any sensory restrictions. Then researchers put a blindfold and headphones on the seal and positioned the seal so its head was above water. The submarine was started under

Contact: Ginger Pinholster
American Association for the Advancement of Science

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