Friday, February 12, 2010

Science, science and more science

Although I study organisms that are too small to see with the naked eye, you may be interested in the other research currently going on at Palmer station. The groups on station shift throughout the season, I can only give you a snapshot of who was at Palmer during the six weeks that I spent there.

The scientists break down roughly into the “buggers,” the “birders” and everyone else. The buggers are from Miami University in Ohio, and they study the largest land animal in Antarctica…a 4mm long wingless midge. It has remarkable adaptations to the harsh climate here, including the ability to survive being frozen, dehydration to 35% of its body weight, large swings in pH and salinity, and even…4 weeks without oxygen. My bet is on these guys as post-apocalyptic climate change survivors. The entomologists are trying to pinpoint the genes that give them these amazing abilities. The scientists are also trying to figure out how these flightless insects happen to even be here. One possibility is that they floated over, because as the buggers discovered by accident, they stay on top of the water surface very well. Or they could have hitched a ride on migratory birds. Or, they could just be holdouts from when Antarctica was not the icy place it is now, who have gradually adapted to their changing world. However they got here, they have the run of the continent.

Then there are the birders. They are the most hard-core of any scientists on station, working over 14 hours per day, 7 days per week for 5 months. They are in the field about 10 hours per day, constantly on the move. Personally, I really don’t think that the data gained from working 7 days per week versus 6 is worth the stress of not taking a break. But anyways, they study penguins, petrels and skua, documenting population levels, reproductive stress, and health based on the physical measurements of individual birds. They measure the contents of penguin stomachs by forcing warm water down their throats until the birds vomit, and the researchers bring back the stomach contents to count each krill. While I was at Palmer, they visited an island that no humans except for themselves are allowed to set foot on, and that even they only go to once per year. Quite undisturbed!

Then last, there is everyone else. That includes our bacterial research and phytoplankton research looking at response to light conditions. In addition there is a scientist who studies the “visual physiology of zooplankton.” What that means in practical terms is that he sticks electrodes into krill eyes! He is looking at what adaptations krill have made to living in such cold water, and also how they handle being in total light for part of the year and total darkness for the other part. He gave a talk about his research, and on the bulletin board we all wrote funny phrases including the word “krill” as shown in the photo I’ve included here (I contributed "Kriller, by Michael Jackson"). There is also a group that I wouldn’t really count as a science group. Four divers are making a visual catalogue of the marine life in the Palmer area, both vertebrate and invertebrate.

These are a few of the grants that the National Science Foundation funds each year through the US Antarctic Program, and between all these groups the lunchtime talk is pretty exciting (because of course, scientists can never stop talking about their research).

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