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Mav, 6 yr old New Zealand Fur Seal, poking nose through a hole in a custom-made 'Whisker Board'
Photo: Clare Chenoweth.

Whiskers are normally something men shave off and rinse down the drain every morning, but at Taronga Zoo, our seals' whiskers are being carefully measured and analysed as part of a research project about climate change.

Recently, the seals put on a special presentation of this project at their theatre by poking their noses through a hole in a custom-made ‘Whisker Board' and demonstrating patiently, how their whiskers can be measured and photographed by Zoo scientists, but why do wiry whiskers warrant such attention?

Seal whiskers provide a fascinating record of a seal's diet and any changes over time, in a similar way that human hair can reveal a history of drug use. By analysing the whiskers from current day seals with whiskers that are up to 100 years old, we can gain an insight into how seals have changed their diet. It is thought that their feeding patterns may reflect changes in the presence of fish, krill and even penguins over the last century.

The Whisker Board, with its seal-sized nose hole and measuring tape running horizontally across the top, comes into play by enabling the scientists to determine whisker growth rates. The seals are taught to poke their noses and wiry whiskers through the hole in ‘whisker measuring sessions', so that over time, researchers can calculate how quickly they grow. Michaela Ciaglia, Researcher at the Zoo's Australian Marine Mammal Research Centre, explains how once this has been determined, they can do tests to find out how quickly the whiskers reflect changes in diet.

The Australian Marine Mammal Research Centre was established in 1996 as a co-operative centre of the Zoological Parks Board of New South Wales and the University of Sydney. Its aim is to promote the conservation of marine mammals and their environment by increasing biological knowledge, monitoring selected marine mammal populations and increasing public awareness by positive, conservation-based education programmes. Australian Marine Mammal Research Centre scientists travel regularly to Antarctica to study pack ice seals in situ.

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