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Researchers track down owner of working USB found in frozen seal poo

Two weeks ago, a USB stick was found in a frozen sample of seal poop that scientists had stored for almost a year. In the most unlikely of miracles, they managed to find the owner.

This fairy tale of poo, data and luck starts at New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) and their leopard seal program. One of the most recurrent methods researchers use to study these animals is to look at their excrement, which is where scientists find information about the animal’s health, diet and movements.

To collect the precious poo, the institute relies on volunteers who collect the samples and send them to the NIWA.

A sample picked up at Oreti Beach about a year ago was defrosted in early February and scientists were surprised to find it contained a USB stick.

To make matters even more incredible, after the scientists extracted and cleaned it, they realised it was still working. On the USB they found some kayaking footage showing frolicking seals in Porpoise Bay on the South Island.

The institute tweeted the footage hoping the owner would recognise the clip and claim the missing USB stick, and against all odds, the owner actually appeared.

What’s even more bizarre is that the person turned out to be the very volunteer who found the scat sample and sent it to NIWA in the first place.

A year ago, the owner was shooting some footage while kayaking at Oreti Beach, when she spotted and reported what appeared to be a sickly looking seal. While a vet was dispatched to check on the adorable predator, she noticed some poo nearby and decided to collect it and send it to the NIWA. Because why not, right?

The seal was ultimately inspected and declared healthy, and the valuable excrement was couriered off to the institute.

Now how on Earth did the USB stick get into the poo?

Well, the most obvious theory is that the owner simply dropped it on the scat while collecting it, but for NIWA researchers, things are never that easy.

The scientists found the memory stick surrounded by feathers and tiny bird bones, just too enmeshed for it to have been simply dropped in there. NIWA believes the USB stick was actually eaten by a seabird, which in turn was eaten by the seal, only to be later found by the owner of the stick.

That being the actual chain of events or not, the fact here is that there is a USB stick out there in the world that survived being frozen in seal poo for a year. And it still worked. We’ll just let that thought sink in.

About the author

Filmmaker. 3D artist. Procrastination guru. I spend most of my time doing VFX work for my upcoming film Servicios Públicos, a sci-fi dystopia about robots, overpopulated cities and tyrant states. @iampineros

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