Brendan Kelly

Research Scientist (NOAA) and Professor of Marine Biology (International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks)


General Career Information...

What is your educational background?
I have a B.A. from the University of California Santa Cruz, an M.S. from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and a Ph.D. from Purdue University, all in Biology.

How did you end up in the field you are in today?
Through high school I primarily studied literature and music. I had planned to study psychology in college, but just before starting college, I had an opportunity to observe sea lions up close. I suddenly was struck by the fact that they had two “arms,” two “legs,” two eyes, and many other features that human beings share. For the first time, it sunk in that we, in fact, are related to sea lions, seals, and other mammals. That immediately made me wonder what on earth seals and sea lions think about. If they have similar bodies to our, do they have similar thoughts? That question led me to want to study their behavior.

What are some of the different career opportunities associated with the work you do?
People who study marine mammals can work as researchers for government agencies, universities, or non-profit corporations. They also can work as wildlife managers for government agencies. The managers have the task of taking knowledge gained from research and applying it to policies that determine how people interact with wildlife populations. Another career opportunity for people with backgrounds in biology or animal behavior is teaching.

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in studying science?
Sell your television. Enjoy video games and such in moderation. Read a lot. Learn and enjoy mathematics. If your math teacher does not make math fun, find another teacher. Read a lot. Be sure to exercise your imagination through art or music or other means. Did I mention read a lot?

On Ice Seals...

Which species of ice seals have you studied?
I’ve studied ringed seals, bearded seals, spotted seals, ribbon seals, Weddell seals, and walruses.

How and where do you conduct your work on ice seals?
Some of my work has been conducted from ice-breaking ships and some from airplanes and helicopters. Mostly, however, I have studied seals by setting up camps and living on the sea ice. We use snow mobiles to get around.

What tools and/or technologies do you use in your work on ice seals?
We use special nets we invented to capture ringed seals in their breathing holes. We use a lot of different kinds of transmitters (radio tags, acoustic tags, and satellite-linked tags) to follow the seals’ movements. We also use hydrophones (underwater microphones) to listen to their calls. Computers are essential for recording, graphing, and analyzing data.

The best tools I use, however, have four legs and a very powerful sensor on the front end. The Labrador retriever’s nose can detect the breathing holes of ringed seals—hidden under the snow—from 2.5 mi (4 km) away!

What research projects related to ice seals have you worked on in the past?
We have attached cattle ear tags to the hind flippers of young bearded, spotted, ribbon, and ringed seals in the pack ice of the Bering Sea to study their movements. We have studied the health of those seals by doing necropsies on dead ones. We have used the flipper tags to study population growth among Weddell seals in Antarctica. We have studied the behavior of walruses on land and on the ice. We have studied the distribution and number of subnivean lairs (snow caves) used by ringed seals. We have studied the responses of ringed seals to disturbance by offshore oil development and by predators such as Arctic foxes and polar bears. We have studied polar bear predation on seals. We have studied the movements of ringed seals under the ice and in open water.

What research projects related to ice seals are you currently involved in?
Most recently, we have been studying the year-to-year movements of ringed seals and their population genetics. We collect molted skin from the ice and extract DNA. In the laboratory, we analyze the DNA from each seal to determine how many genes are shared by seals from different areas in the Arctic.

What have you learned so far from your research?
Ringed seals live in very small areas—0.4 to 0.8 mi2 (1 to 2 km2) from freeze-up in the fall through ice break-up the following summer. Then, they move around over large distances, sometimes traveling 1,200 mi (2,000 km) or more. At the next freeze-up, however, they return to the same small area they occupied the previous year. Despite the fact that the adults return to the same small areas each year, they seem to share the same sets of genes over most of the Arctic Ocean and surrounding seas. That could mean that young animals move and settle in new areas when they become old enough to breed, or it could be because local populations have always been large enough that they maintain all the genes that exist in the larger population.

Why is it important to study ice seals?
The ice-associated seals are important actors in the Arctic marine ecosystem. They are the primary food of polar bears, and they consume much of the fish and zooplankton in the Arctic Ocean. They also have been important as food for Eskimo people for thousands of years.

What threats are currently facing ice seals?
Disturbance from offshore oil development and the possibility of oil spills are threats. Even greater threats are posed by the warming of our climate which is happening twice as fast in the Arctic as elsewhere.

How is climate change affecting ice seals and their habitats?
The warming is rapidly diminishing the ice cover that seals depend on. In evolving to inhabit the ocean, seals have adapted what once were typical carnivore legs to be flippers. That makes them fast in the water but slow out of the water where their young are born and nursed. Therefore, they are quite vulnerable to predation when raising their young out of the water. For thousands of years, the sea ice has provided an extensive area where seals could raise young with few predators. As the ice disappears, they may try to raise young on land, but many more predators will have access to them.

Climate change further threatens ringed seals because the snow cover they depend on is melting earlier each spring. That means that ringed seal pups are exposed to predators and outside weather when they are too young to get away or stay warm.

How do native communities interact with and depend on ice seals?
Coastal Natives have depended on seals for food, oil, and skins for thousands of years. The first human inhabitants of the Arctic could not have survived there were it not for ringed seals, which are available year-round in the Arctic.

What kind of collaborations with native communities have you participated in?
Eskimo hunters taught me how to use dogs to find ringed seal holes under the snow, how to live on and navigate in the ice, and many things about the natural history of seals and walruses. They have worked with us on the ice and at sea as we have studied the animals. In turn, I have been able to help them interpret scientific data and its use in management decisions.

Why is it important to do research in the Arctic in general and about ice seals specifically?
With extreme light and temperature cycles, the Arctic provides a good natural laboratory for studying how animals and plants adapt to extreme environments. As the climate warms, the temperature extremes will become less and the physical habitat—especially snow and ice—will diminish. Whether and how ice-associated seals will adapt to those changes is an important area of study, because it will have impacts on the entire ecosystem including polar bears and Eskimos.

What is the most interesting or exciting thing that has happened during your research?
Because they have evolved with the threat of being eaten by polar bears, ringed seals are very wary. It was very interesting to learn enough about how they think that, eventually, I was able to figure out how to capture them. It is pretty exciting to catch one in my net. Still, many, many years after seeing sea lions up close when I was about to enter college, I am just beginning to understand what they think about.

What follow-up research related to ice seals would you like to do in the future?
I would like to learn how seals navigate and find food under the ice in the dark of the Arctic winter.

On the Arctic...

In what ways do you feel that humans affect the Arctic environment (positively and/or negatively)?
Many pollutants from human industries far away have entered the Arctic on winds and contaminated the air, soils, and snow. Some of those pollutants have been cleaned up as a result of research and government policies. Others remain and are threats to the ecosystem and human health. The carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that we emit from coal plants, automobiles, cement production, and other activities are causing Earth’s atmosphere and oceans to warm. The Arctic is warming twice as rapidly as other parts of the earth, largely because of what we call “polar amplification.” The melting sea ice amplifies the warming because it reflects more sunlight than sea water reflects. The ice reflects about 10 times as much sunlight as does unfrozen water. Therefore, when the oceans warms enough to melt some ice, a greater proportion of the Arctic Ocean is made up of unfrozen water and more of the sun’s energy is absorbed by the ocean. That means the water warms further and melts still more ice, resulting in less reflectance, and even more warming.

What are the most common misconceptions that people have about living or working in the Arctic?
The Arctic covers a large area of land and ocean, much of which is frozen in winter and thawed in summer. Often, people do not understand that there are many different environments in the Arctic and that it changes dramatically with the seasons.

What do you like the best about doing work in the Arctic?
I like the large expanses of pristine habitat, and I like working with animals that are adapted to this extreme habitat.

What do you like the least about doing work in the Arctic?
It saddens me to see the rapid change in Arctic habitats and the negative impacts on the ecosystem and the people who live there.

What changes—if any—have you noticed in the Arctic over the past few decades?
The sea ice forms later and melts earlier than it used to. The ice does not get as thick as it used to. The duration of snow cover also has decreased.

What one thing would you most like kids to learn from studying the Arctic?
The Arctic is interconnected with the rest of the planet. Pollutants from elsewhere arrive on the wind and ocean currents. Changes in global temperature are amplified in the Arctic. Decisions people make elsewhere have tremendous impacts on the people who live in the Arctic.

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in protecting the Arctic?
Sell your television. Read. Read some more. Use your interest to inform other people about how our individual and group choices impact the climate—not just at home but also in the Arctic. Learn to use less energy. Ask and then demand that adults change our overall energy use to protect the climate.

On Being a Kid...

What kinds of books did you like to read when you were a kid? Why?
I liked books by E. B. White and A. A. Milne because they were so imaginative. I liked Box Car Children because it showed what kids could do. I liked biographies because they showed how people came to do what they did as adults.

What was your favorite subject when you were in middle school?

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
In middle school, I imagined I would be a lawyer who helped people.

What advice do you wish that someone had given you when you were a kid?
Sell the television.

On the Rest of Life...

Who are some of the people you look up to or admire?
Jim Hansen is a scientist who has provided many insights into climate change and has worked hard to encourage people to find ways to reduce our contributions to warming. Al Gore has been very effective at communicating the dangers and potential solutions to climate change.

What do you like to do for fun?
I like to sail, talk with good friends, and read fiction.

Do you have any final thoughts or words of advice that you would like to share?
Did I mention selling the television?

JASON Learning: A Partnership of Sea Research Foundation and National Geographic