As It Happens

USB stick full of sea lion videos discovered in frozen N.Z. seal poop

Scientists at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research have discovered a fully intact USB stick, complete with pictures and video files, inside sample of frozen leopard seal feces.

Scientists trying to track down the owner of the missing storage device

Researchers found a fully functional USB stick that had been swallowed by a leopard seal — but probably not this specific leopard seal. (Dave Allen/NIWA )
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If you're missing a USB stick from a sea lion-watching expedition to New Zealand, we have some great news for you.

Scientists at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research have discovered a fully intact USB stick, complete with pictures and video files, inside a sample of frozen leopard seal feces. 

"It was a big surprise for all of us," marine biologist Krista Hupman told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"To see plastic in the scat samples is always disappointing, but yeah, something like a whole USB stick, let alone getting it to work, was definitely not expected."

Hupman and her team study leopard seal scat samples as a way of monitoring the health of the species. The sample in question was collected on Oreti Beach in Invercargill in November 2017, and stored in a freezer until last month.

When they found the USB stick, the researchers spent three weeks drying it out with a hairdryer and working to recover the data.

On it, they found several photos and videos of of what appear to be sea lions on Porpoise Bay, about 96 kilometres away from where the scat sample was found. 

Now they're trying to match the stick with its owner. 

"It's be great, just for novelty, I think, to find out if somebody's missing their USB stick and find out how it got to be on the beach where the leopard seal was," Hupman said. 

"I think that would be a neat story."

This photo of a seal lion was discovered on a USB stick embedded in a sample of seal feces. (NIWA )

So far, several candidates have come forward.

"Apparently, this morning, I've heard that there were four people who claim it's their USB, so we now have a fight on of whose USB it actually is," she said. 

Plastic problems 

While unraveling the USB mystery is fun, Hupman says plastic in sea animals' digestive systems is not.

Her team regularly finds microplastics in the seal scat samples, she said, but whole pieces of plastic are still "quite rare."

But she holds no animosity towards the owner of the USB stick, which she suspects was lost rather than discarded.

"I guess it's a reminder to ​everybody that any plastic you discard anywhere, you know, can end up in our sea and maybe even inside a leopard seal," she said. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Sarah Jackson.

Clarifications

  • In an earlier version of this story, the headline stated the USB stick contained videos of seals. NIWA has since confirmed the videos and images are of sea lions.
    Feb 06, 2019 2:09 PM ET