AEO {Arctic Environmental Observatory}


Marine Mammal Sampling Program (Last revised June 28,  2006)


Tissue samples are collected from subsistence-harvested seals such as ribbon (left) and bearded seals (right).


Marine Mammal Sampling Program:

We began a marine mammal sampling program in 2000 to collect tissue subsamples from animals harvested during normal subsistence activities for use in studies of marine mammal biology and to develop a longer-term marine mammal observational base on Little Diomede Island.


To accomplish this effort, we 1) collect biological samples and data from subsistence-harvested marine mammals; 2) analyze as well as archive biological samples and data and make them available for the scientific research community. 


This sampling program is a critical resource for tissues that are extremely difficult to obtain. Collaboration and sharing of samples is encouraged.


Because the Diomede community is heavily dependent upon subsistence harvests for food, and communication and collaboration between residents and visiting scientist exists, this sampling program is one of the most comprehensive marine mammal tissue collection efforts currently on-going. 

The Diomede community is heavily dependent upon subsistence harvests of marine mammals for food and equipment (e.g. skin-boat construction).







To date, more than 380 marine mammals have been sampled including: 133 ringed (Phoca hispida), 99 bearded (Erignathus barbatus), 66 spotted (P. largha), and 41 ribbon (Phoca fasciata) seals, as well as 41 walruses (Odobenus rosmarus), five beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas), two polar bears (Ursus maritimus), and one bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus).  Biological specimens collected include: jaws, stomachs, serum, blubber, spleen, liver, kidney, muscle, skin, and/or fetuses.  Samples are frozen and shipped to Fairbanks when transportation is available. 

Tissue samples: (left to right) stomach, blubber, liver, kidney, and female reproductive tract.












** Examples of how these marine mammal specimens are used**


Tissue samples are collected from subsistence-harvested animals such as walruses.

Community-based Work and Outreach

Ms. Sheffield visits Diomede biannually to assist with sampling, answer questions, and discuss the program with the community.  Additionally, research results are reported to the City of Diomede , IRA Council (tribal government), and Inalik Corporation (island land-owning entity).  Posters describing current research and/or results are posted in public areas (e.g., washeteria, Native store, etc). 

Resident hunters and Ms. Sheffield developed a live-capture technique that resulted in a successful live capture, sampling, and satellite-tagging of a ringed seal in Alaska (  This provided the first documentation of a ringed seal’s movements corresponding with the spring retreat of pack ice in the Bering and Chukchi seas.  Live-capture and tagging efforts continue to be attempted annually in a collaborative effort with island residents.





Island residents with a live ringed seal  implemented with a satellite transmitter used to document its spring movements.












Marine mammal educational material and/or hydrophone demonstrations are presented to the school children each year.  Information on marine mammal natural history, tissue sampling, and regulations on the use of marine mammal products are provided to teachers and students.  The seal sampling program is promoted through collaborations with teachers, the Diomede student government, and Bering Strait School District.  The Marine Mammal Sampling Program supported teachers in the NSF Experiencing Antarctica and the Arctic (TEA) program during 2001 ( and 2003 (


During 2003, a written questionnaire was distributed to collect traditional knowledge on seal distribution, behavior, abundance, harvest patterns, and availability relative to ice conditions.  A progress report to NSF was completed that included a preliminary analysis of 18 surveys from Little Diomede.  It is expected these data will enhance the results from the marine mammal data analyzed and we will better understand the current status of marine mammal populations in the region. 


Other agencies and organization with whom this project provides information and/or samples includes:


Permits: All biological specimens are currently collected and transferred under permits from NMFS MMPA Permit(s) 782-1694 and 358-1585, CITES Permit No. US99694250, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the State of Alaska. 



Gay Sheffield, Wildlife Biologist

Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game

1300 College Road

Fairbanks, Alaska  99701


(907) 459-7248 work

(907) 452-6410 fax

Email address:


For more information on the State of Alaska’s Marine Mammal Program please visit


For more information on Alaska’s Marine Mammals visit



Selected Research Products (from this sampling effort)


Bracht, A. J.  2005.  Detection and molecular characterization of cetacean and pinniped poxviruses associated with cutaneous lesions. M.S. Thesis, University of Florida, 101 pp.


Bracht, A.J., R.L. Brudek, R.Y. Ewing, C.A. Manire, K.A. Hurek, C. Rosa, K.B. Beckman, J.E. Marusiak, and C.H. Romero 2005. Genetic identification of novel poxviruses of cetaceans and pinnipeds. Archives of Virology DOI 10:1007/s00705-005-0679-6.


Dehn, L. A., G. Sheffield, E. H. Follmann, L. K. Duffy, D.L. Thomas, G.R. Bratton, R.J. Taylor,  and T. M. O’Hara. 2005.  Trace elements in tissues of phocid seals harvested in the Alaskan and  Canadian Arctic: Influence of age and feeding ecology. Canadian Journal of Zoology 83: 726-746.


Dehn, L. A., E. H. Follmann, D.L. Thomas, G. G. Sheffield, C. Rosa, L. K. Duffy, and T. M. O’Hara. 2006.  Trohpic relationshipos in an Arctic food web and implications for trace metal transfer. Science of the Total Environment, in-press.


Douglas III, H.D., J.E. Co, T.H. Jones, W.E. Conner. 2002. Chemistry, production, and

potential functions of aldehyde odorants in the Crested Auklet (Aethia cristatella).

Annual Meeting of the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology, Jan. 2-6,

2002, Anaheim Marriott, Anaheim, CA.


Levenson, D. H. 2004.  The visual pigments of diving tetrapods: Genetic and electroretinographic investigations of pinnipeds, cetaceans, penguins, and sea turtles.  Ph.D. Dissertation, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UCSD, 122 pp.


O’ Corry-Crowe and C. Bonin.  2004.  The Molecular Ecology of Marine Mammals in

            the Bering Strait: A pilot investigation of ribbon seals, Phoca fasciata.  Final

            Report, NMFS Southwest Fisheries Science Center/Aquatic Farms Inc. Alaska

            Dept. of Fish and Game, 1300 College Rd., Fairbanks, Alaska. pp. 5.


O’ Corry-Crowe, A. Frey, and K. Coultrup. 2003.  Molecular genetic study of population

structure and dispersal patterns in four species of ice seal in the Bering, Chukchi,

and Beaufort Seas – feasibility analysis.  Final Report, NMFS Southwest

Fisheries Science Center/Aquatic Farms Inc. Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game,

1300 College Rd., Fairbanks, Alaska. pp. 5.


Quakenbush, L., L. Hughes, and G. Sheffield.  2005. Organochlorine contaminants in ice seal blubber from the Bering Sea subsistence harvest in Alaska.  Alaska Society of American Foresters and Alaska Chapter of the Wildlife Society 2nd Annual Joint Meeting, 21-23 April, Fairbanks, AK. (Abstract)


Sheffield, G. and T. Menadelook Jr.  2001.  Capture and movements of an Alaskan ringed

seal in the Bering Strait.  Page 195 in Proc. 14th Conf. Biology of Marine

Mammals, 28 November-3 December 2001. (abstract)


Simpkins, M. A., L. M. Hiruki-Raring, G. Sheffield, J. M. Grebmeier, and J. L. Bengtson.

            2003.        Habitat selection by ice-associated pinnipeds near St. Lawrence Island,

            Alaska. Polar Biology 26(9): 577-586



Overall Observatory Lead Scientist: Lee Cooper

  • Mailing address:
  • Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
  • 569 Dabney Hall, University of Tennessee
  • Knoxville, TN 37996, U.S.A.