Antarctic researcher returns with chilling tales of seal research


Above: York biologist Thomas Hawke at work in Antarctica

If you ever find yourself on the ice floes of Antarctica, Thomas Hawke has some advice: watch out for Crabeater seals, they’re fast.

“If you get close to them, they will chase you and you can’t outrun them,” said Hawke, a stem-cell biologist and professor in York’s School of Kinesiology & Health Science who just returned from a nine-week research trip to Antarctica’s McMurdo Research Station.

Thomas Hawke

Left: Hawke in flight over Antarctica

As the only Canadian member of the four-person team, Hawke was making his first trip to the deep, cold southern polar region to study the more docile Weddell seals and their amazing ability to dive underwater for long stretches without coming up for air (see the Aug. 5, 2005 issue of YFile).

The seals, which can stay under water for as long as 87 minutes while they search for food, are the focus of a study by researchers from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas who asked Hawke to join them because of his expertise in molecular biology and his work on muscle stem cells in his lab at York. The research team’s interest is in determining the molecular and cellular qualities that allow the seals to be active for so long without fresh oxygen and yet escape vascular disease or muscle injury.

By studying the Weddell seals’ ability to develop deep-diving abilities, Hawke also hopes to learn more about how stem cells work and how that knowledge can help doctors develop new therapies for heart patients.

Right: Weddell seal pup and its mother

“If we can replicate the oxygen-transfer capabilities of the Weddell seals’ skeletal muscle cells, it is likely we can develop therapies for treating people with cardio-vascular or ischemic disease to give their systems a better chance to rebuild damaged areas after a heart attack or stroke,” said Hawke.

He and his colleagues travelled each day onto the sea ice to the seals’ habitat to take tiny samples of seal muscle and transport them back to the McMurdo Research Station for processing. Later, in the lab, the stem cells will be studied under controlled – and more congenial – conditions.

“It’s really, really cold,” Hawke explained, ” minus 5 to minus 15C but the wind chill – there’s always wind in Antarctica. The wind was the real factor.”

Left: Whiteout conditions

During the evenings, when there was little else to do, Hawke spent time on the Internet managing his expedition Web site ( hosted by YesICan, a science resource organization for schools. The site won a 2005 Edublog Award for “Best example/ case study of use of Weblogs within teaching and learning” and, with more than 45 schools participating, kept Hawke busy answering students’ questions and providing regular updates.

In fact, Hawke became the unofficial expedition photographer by virtue of the fact that he could keep his small digital camera warm inside his parka and always ready for the many stunning images of Antarctic scenery that helped illustrate the site.

Hawke left Antarctica in early December and spent two weeks travelling in New Zealand with his wife Beth – the couple married only six weeks before he left for the frozen continent – and returned to York just before Christmas. In addition to teaching classes and supervising his graduate students, Hawke will now begin the process of studying the tissue samples he and the team collected.