Animal droppings provide a wealth of information to zoologists, but has any contained quite as much data as one left behind by a leopard seal that included a fully working USB stick? If you think you might be the owner, New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) would like to hear from you.
Leopard seals are an important part of New Zealand's marine ecosystem, traveling all the way there from Antarctica, where they usually spend the summer. In an effort to track their health, behavior, and diet, a team at NIWA run the leopard seal program, where dedicated volunteers collect their feces, known as scat, and send them to NIWA who analyze them.
One scat was collected on Oreti Beach, Invercargill. There is an, err, backlog, of scats to process, so this one sat in a freezer at NIWA for over a year. When volunteer Jodie Warren thawed it out she found a piece of plastic inside. At first depressed the pollution we are putting in the ocean might be reaching even Antarctica, Warren soon realized it was an apparently undamaged USB stick.
The stick was dried out just in case and, to the team's amazement, not only turned out to be in full working order, but to contain photos and video of frolicking seals. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing if the seals shown include the one that ate it.
NIWA are keen to find the owner. However, identifying information is limited. Besides images of waving sea lions like the one below, a blue kayak and red boots, distinctively shaped hills in the background confirm the footage was taken at Porpoise Bay lagoon, 800 kilometers (500 miles) away from where the stick was found.
The leopard seal program's Dr Krista Hupman told IFLScience the program was motivated by desire to understand why more leopard seals appear to be spending time in New Zealand waters year round, rather than being purely winter visitors. There is a push to get the species reclassified from vagrant to resident.
Hupman added it is unusual to find macroscopic plastic items in leopard seal scats, unlike some other marine animals, but microplastics are increasingly common.