Fur Seal Conservation and Marine Biology

Emma Milner

Emma Milner studied Conservation Biology and Ecology with Study Abroad at the University of Exeter, Penryn Campus (2012-2016). Her Study Abroad year was spent at the University of Calgary in Canada.

How did your degree impact on your career choice? My degree has given me a really great grounding in the fundamentals of Conservation and Ecology due to the variety of modules that I was able to choose from during my time at Exeter. However I found that I enjoyed myself the most when I became involved in field work. This interest started in first year during the module Field Techniques and continued to grow as I participated in more field work both at University and with projects elsewhere. I would say volunteering with the North Cyprus Marine Turtle Conservation Project really opened my eyes to how fascinating and rewarding research can be. I really enjoyed my time with the project and it help spark a particular interest and focus on marine biology research. I continued engaging in fieldwork research during my study abroad year in Canada where I worked with a variety of animals such as guppies, flour beetles and aquatic phytoplankton and zooplankton. My degree has helped increase my interest and curiosity about the world around us and has encouraged me to want to pursue a career in research and further study.

“I think this placement really helped give me a push in the right direction in terms of pursuing a career in ecological research especially because of all the new field and lab techniques I acquired during my time on the island.”

How did you get the placement? I applied for the South American Fur Seal Research Assistant placement on Guafo Island (Northern Chilean Patagonia) after seeing it advertised online. I think that it was a mixture of the field skills I had acquired during my time at University and the research I conducted in my third year that helped me secure this placement. My third year research project focused on Stable Isotope analysis of juvenile Cornish Grey Seal whiskers. This project increased my knowledge of Grey Seal biology whilst also giving me experience handling seal tissues which held me in good stead for this project.

Emma Milner seal pupsWhat did the placement involve?Guafo Island is located in the Pacific Ocean, northwest of the Chonos Archipelago, Chile and southwest of Chiloé Island. It is uninhabited and isolated from outside communications, roughly ten hours by fisherman’s boat from the mainland but has one of the largest breeding colonies of South American Fur Seals in Chile. Research was conducted looking at behavioural, physiological and pathological aspects of the seals life history. Live pups were caught and genetic samples (blood, whiskers, faeces etc) were taken and the pups were tagged and marked in order to conduct behavioural analyses. Necropsies of dead pups were also conducted to determine common causes of death in the rookery. Females were also caught and sampled with the aid of an anaesthesia machine.
During this position I learnt many skills including animal handling, taking blood, capture/recapture techniques and census techniques. Lab work was also conducted in the field adjacent to camp. Specific tests for haemoglobin level and protein content were undertaken whilst red and white blood cells were counted under the microscope. Swabs taken from the pups were used to count hookworm eggs and thus estimate severity of hookworm infection in the individual. Hookworm related diseases affect large numbers of the pup population each year and so it is important to understand the parasites cycles and prevalence. Faeces samples were also taken to analyse for plastic pollution.

How has it impacted on your career?This position has greatly improved my confidence in terms of being a research assistant in a unique and isolated environment. It has also made me feel more comfortable handling and taking samples from potentially dangerous animals. I think this placement really helped give me a push in the right direction in terms of pursuing a career in ecological research especially because of all the new field and lab techniques I acquired during my time on the island.

What’s next for you? In terms of what is next for me I would love to continue working as a research assistant on conservation and ecology projects in the UK and abroad.  I would also like to pursue a Masters with a particular focus on Marine Biology and in time I would like to achieve my PhD which ideally would focus on marine toxicology and anthropogenic threats to marine mammal health.

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