Newborn seals join in the txt msg revolution

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Newborn seal pups are being fitted with the latest mobile phone technology so they can "text" their progress back to the scientists monitoring them.

Newborn seal pups are being fitted with the latest mobile phone technology so they can "text" their progress back to the scientists monitoring them.

With a deadly disease threatening to wipe out more than half of Britain's seal population, the new study has taken on grave importance. So far 2,000 seals in England and 130 in Scotland have died from phocine distemper virus since an outbreak of the disease spread to the United Kingdom in August. There is no known cure or vaccine.

Scientists from the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St Andrews are fitting hundreds of newborn seals with a microchip to collect information. Using mobile phone technology, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, the seals will transmit details of their movements, eating patterns and interaction with the environment, which will help devise new approaches towards marine conservation.

The tiny "phone tags" are glued to the seal's fur and will fall off when the mammal moults, by which time scientists hope to have discovered what happens to baby seals during their first few months of independence.

About 38,000 grey seals are born on land breeding colonies in the UK each November, and after being suckled by their mothers for about 18 days they are left to fend for themselves. The next couple of months are crucial for their survival as they explore the seas, and learn how to navigate and find food.Less than half make it to their first birthday.

But scientists hope that by fitting the tags to seals born on the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth they will receive regular messages from the pups.

Bernie McConnell, the project's senior research scientist, said: "Over the last 10 years we have developed satellite telemetry techniques to track marine mammals at sea, on species from the Arctic to the Antarctic, which has led to amazing insights into how they live and behave at sea."

The project is being carried out under the gaze of the public, as live broadcasts of the seals are transmitted to the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick using cameras similar to those used on Channel 4's Big Brother. Visitors to the centre, 14km away, are able to see how the pups cope with life on the beach.

Lynda Dalgleish, from the seabird centre, said: "In light of the recent phocine distemper virus seal deaths in the south of England we're lucky in Scotland to be seeing healthy newborn seals."

The virus is transferred by coughing and affects the immune system of the seal, leaving it susceptible to other infections such as pneumonia. Symptoms include respiratory problems, coughing, nasal discharge, a reluctance to move, subcutaneous emphysema (air under the skin) and possibly problems of the nervous system. The seals then become unable to dive to feed.

In 1988, the virus killed 18,000 seals throughout Europe, including 60 per cent of Britain's harbour seal population and one-third of common seals.