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  • Antarctica’s crabeater seals are the focus of an international study led by the University of Canterbury. The aim is to understand potential environmental and social impacts on one of the southern-most mammals in the world. To help the project, citizen scientists were asked to examine Maxar’s high-resolution satellite imagery and identify if seals are present or not. Read about some of the findings in Citizen science and habitat modelling facilitates conservation planning for crabeater seals in the Weddell Sea.

    Rights: Tomnod


    This online citizen science platform hosts a range of different projects, from identifying whether specific animals are visible in satellite images through to mapping the impacts of events such as Hurricane Maria in Dominica and Puerto Rico.

    URL: (as this project has now finished this URL is no longer valid)

    Reach: Worldwide

    Nature of science focus: Online citizen science (OCS) projects can be used to develop any of the Nature of Science (NoS) substrands. Identify aspects of NoS that your students need to get better at or understand more fully and then frame your unit to be very clear about these things when you do them.

    Science capability focus: Gather and interpret data

    Science focus: Ecology

    Some suggested science concepts:

    • Scientists classify living things and group them according to their shared features.
    • All animals occupy specific habitats and niches.
    • All animals have adaptive features – structural (tapered bodies, blubber, large lungs), physiological (slowing heart rate when diving to conserve oxygen, large blood volume) or behavioural (basking in the Sun to warm up, creating breathing holes in the ice) – that enable them to survive.

    Many concepts could be learned – focusing on a few can often be more powerful. Develop your learning outcomes and success criteria from these concepts as well as the Nature of Science strand and the science capabilities.

    Some examples of learning outcomes:

    Students can:

    • observe closely to identify the presence of an animal species in satellite images
    • describe an animal’s habitat and niche
    • relate an animal’s structural or behavioural features to how an animal survives.
    Rights: Te Papa Tongarewa

    Crabeater seal teeth

    Crabeater seals (Lobodon carcinophaga) have specially adapted teeth. The interlocking teeth act as a sieve, allowing them to filter krill from the water. Krill are a common type of zooplankton.

    About Tomnod’s crabeater seal project

    Crabeater seals live in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica and are thought to be one of the most abundant mammals on Earth – but is this really true? Scientist Dr Michelle LaRue and her team are seeking your help to find this out!

    Rights: Jesse Hiatt

    Seal and scientist

    University of Canterbury scientist Dr Michelle LaRue with a crabeater seal in Antarctica.

    These species are facing substantial conservation challenges in our changing physical and social environments. Analysing population dynamics can help us understand how these animals are dealing with these environmental changes and how the overall populations are being affected.

    Dr Michelle LaRue

    Participation in the project can be done using a computer to access Maxar’s high-resolution satellite imagery and identify if seals are present or not. The tutorial images are effective in training your eye to decide if what you see is indeed a seal or not.

    The website is well set up and easy to follow. Additional information is available if required. After you have identified if seals are present or not, another photo/video appears. You can also ask questions about the image if you are unsure.

    This OCS project lends itself to developing an appreciation for one of the Earth’s last wildernesses – our most southern environment – and its inhabitants, including the Weddell seal and the crabeater seal. It will also help develop students’ ability to carefully observe. Some useful conversations can be had around why scientists need assistance in categorising all of these photos/videos and how they make sure that the data collection is reliable.

    What I love about this research is there are several impacts: democratising science, engaging people with the scientific method and empowering people to make a difference in the world.

    Dr Michelle LaRue


    This citizen science project has now been completed, read about some of the findings in Citizen science and habitat modelling facilitates conservation planning for crabeater seals in the Weddell Sea.

    Nature of science

    Using this Online citizen science project gives opportunities to discuss how scientists might use the collective data from photos/videos to monitor species numbers and distribution. Students can also consider the challenges for scientists in analysing large datasets themselves and appreciate how involving citizen scientists can help speed up the scientists’ work.

    Related content

    Zooniverse’s Weddell seal count project is another citizen science project asking for help to analyse images.

    Researchers from Victoria University of Wellington set up a similar study to investigate the number of invasive mammals in Wellington – see the article Invasive animals in cities.

    In Taranaki’s Project Hotspot, citizen scientists are asked to log sightings of coastal species.

    Find out more about other species of seals.

    Ecosystems, adaptations and life on the ice – this article has some great background information.

    Here are some planning tips for when you intend to use a citizen science project with your students.

    For other online citizen science projects logging the distribution of species, see Instant Wild. eBird and iNaturalist, also enable you to log your data rather than asking you to interpret images captured by the project.

    Useful links

    Find out more about the crabeater seal and adaptations for survival on the ice.

    The Ministry of Education’s Building Science Concepts series includes Book 39: Is it an Animal? Introducing the Animal Kingdom and Book 55: Mammals: Investigating a Group of Animals and might be a good starting point for younger students.

      Published 29 March 2019, Updated 24 November 2021 Referencing Hub articles
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