19 December 2000

UQ Gatton student seeks seal of success for Antarctic wildlife work

When Colette Harmsen graduated bachelor of veterinary science from the University of Queensland last year [December 1999], she hardly expected to be spending this Christmas studying elephant seals on Macquarie Island.

A casual conversation with wildlife reproduction specialist Dr Steve Johnston, a lecturer in UQ Gatton's School of Animal Studies, led to her current role as a master of veterinary science student working with a team of Australian scientists in Antarctica.

Dr Johnston is primary supervisor for Colette's masters thesis, which will keep her on Macquarie Island for 15 months.

The Commonwealth-funded team is studying reproduction in elephant seals - a species whose declining birth rate over the past 20 years makes it vulnerable but not yet critically endangered, according to Dr Johnston.

Colette is investigating Early Pregnancy Factor (EPF), thought to be detectable in a prospective mother's bloodstream within a day or so of impregnation.

Her work includes collecting and analysing blood samples from female elephant seals at varying times such as before and after birth, after mating and at strategic stages of pregnancy.

EPF occurs in a range of mammals, including the koala, and so the study could have important ramifications for the breeding of many wild and captive at-risk animal species, Dr Johnston says.

"Early diagnosis of pregnancy in wild elephant seals will help establish the incidence of conception failure in the Macquarie Island population," he said.

"The information could help establish models of population growth for continued monitoring of wild elephant seal numbers."

Colette's other supervisors include Dr Halle Morton of the University of Queensland's Surgery Department, a world leader in the study of EPF; Professor Michael McGowan of the Royal Veterinary College in London; and Dr Harry Burton of Australia's Antarctic Division, based in Hobart.

Dr Johnston says elephant seals have a unique reproductive process in that about 19 days after giving birth, the female can mate again but the embryo rests as a ball of cells in the uterus and does not implant until four to five months later.

"Current pregnancy tests can only determine the presence of a hatched, implanted embryo," he said.
"By this time the mother elephant seal has left the beach and is out feeding in the southern ocean, making blood collection difficult."

For more information, contact Dr Steve Johnston, UQ Gatton (telephone 0408 280 963 or 3365 0076) or Moya Pennell, UQ Communications (telephone 3365 2846).