Antarctic Science

Biological Sciences

Age, geographical distribution and taphonomy of an unusual occurrence of mummified crabeater seals on James Ross Island, Antarctic Peninsula

A.E. Nelsona1 c1, J.L. Smelliea1, M. Williamsa2 and S. Moretona3

a1 British Antarctic Survey, NERC, High Cross, Madingley Road, Cambridge CB3 0ET, UK

a2 Department of Geology, University of Leicester, University Road, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK

a3 NERC Radiocarbon Laboratory, Scottish Enterprise Technology Park, Rankine Avenue, East Kilbride G75 0QF, UK


An unusually dense collection of some 150 dead crabeater seals (Family Phocidae), in various stages of decay, occurs in the Brandy Bay hinterland, north-western James Ross Island, northern Antarctic Peninsula. Throughout the past 100 years, the presence of shelf ice (no longer present today) and sea ice in Prince Gustav Channel, between James Ross Island and the Antarctic Peninsula, has prevented seals from readily accessing the western side of James Ross Island. However, open water pools, some over one kilometre in diameter, remain accessible throughout the winter months, allowing seals to haul out onto the ice. It is likely that some of these seals may become disorientated as they wander away from the pools and instead head toward Brandy Bay and onto low-lying and snow-covered Abernethy Flats, easily mistaken for sea ice in early winter, where they perish. The large number of variably-decayed animals present suggests that this has probably happened on numerous occasions. However, some of the dead seals also probably perished during a documented mass dying event of crabeater seals in Prince Gustav Channel caused by an unidentified epidemic, possibly phocine distemper virus (PDV), during the spring of 1955.

(Received November 26 2007)

(Accepted February 22 2008)