There and Back Again
Hi there! My name is Damien Waits and I’m a research technician in the Halanych Lab at Auburn University. I was lucky enough to be on the last Antarctic cruise that the Halanych lab embarked upon in 2013, and now I have returned to sample the Southern Ocean again. I’d like to tell you that I’m here to discuss in detail all the glamorous things that my colleagues left out of past blog posts. I am sure there are many amazing topics that have slipped through the cracks while we discussed rare and vibrant animals we collected, breathtaking scenery, and charismatic megafauna we caught sight of from the bow of the ship. However, I’m here to talk to you about what happens after the animals are collected, the sights have been seen, and the ship is headed home.
Setting up the lab was a rigorous ordeal that now has to be undone! Much like how hikers behave when they roam the countryside, we now need to spend time ensuring that we “Leave No Trace”. We screwed in wood blocks to secure microscopes, tied in boxes to hold bottles for samples, and set up lines for hanging our wet clothes after being on deck. Now we need to remove the blocks and pack the microscopes up nice and neat so they’re safe for their trip back to Auburn. The boxes are mostly empty now, but any leftover bottles will remain in a warehouse in Chile, awaiting the day they will embark on another cruise. Our hangers and lines have to be brought down and all the muddy float coats and waterproof bibs need to be scrubbed and rinsed so they’ll be clean for the next group of sailors. We also have a camera stand that allows us to take pictures of animals from above that has to be broken down and put pack in its case.
In addition to scientific equipment, the samples we collected need to be taken care of as well. We will send our ethanol samples home in a large metal shipping container that is kept at 4 degrees Celsius, and our frozen samples will go in Styrofoam boxes filled with dry ice. We have very specific instructions for labelling the boxes, adding enough absorbent material, and packing them up that we must follow to ensure our samples don’t get delayed and everyone who handles them on their way back is safe from any chemicals we used to preserve the animals. Speaking of chemicals, any leftover preservatives also need to be packed up or disposed of very carefully. As you would expect, there is a ton of paperwork that needs to be done to ensure everything gets where it needs to go.
Finally, we’ll all need to collect and pack our personal belongings after three months of living on the ship. This might take the longest, because we’ve all had lots of time to settle in to living on the ship and tried to make it as homey as possible. We’ve made workstations in the electronics lab and set up our rooms just the way we like it, but soon we’ll be packing our bags in preparation for our flight home.
PS: Hello to Mrs. Plunkett’s students who I hear have been following along with us on our cruise. Watch out for a special Antarctic present in your classroom sometime soon!
Technician in the Halanych Lab
Losing my sense of scale
Latitude: -64 49.1780 Longitude: -64 39.3581
Antarctica has caused me to lose my sense of scale. Scale is a crucial aspect of science; it is how we add context to data and how we place observations into a larger (or smaller) perspective. Scaling is the reason photos of very large and very small objects often contain easily referenceable tokens like a penny, a human hand, or a banana. These scale tokens help the viewer better comprehend the size of the subject. Without a proper understanding of scale, it is nearly impossible to make meaningful comparisons between two observations. Scale is something I have had trouble fully grasping while traversing Antarctica.
I have seen bright white sea ice that extends further than my vision, mountains that rise thousands of feet into the sky only to drop directly into the sea, and monolithic icebergs that silently cruise by like frozen giants. Fully comprehending the magnitude of these landscapes has been an ongoing challenge and has set my head spinning more than once. While looking at topographic maps of the mountain ranges and aerial photographs of icebergs has helped me form an objective understanding of their size, I still lack an intuitive, gut -level, understanding of their magnitude. My brain needs a familiar object next to these colossal bodies to put them into perspective. Unfortunately, chucking bananas at passing bergs is “strictly prohibited” so I’ll have to settle for too-large-to-really-comprehend numerical measures.
At the other end of the size spectrum, my sense of scale is equally troubled. The Kocot team and myself have spent this cruise working on small macrofaunal and meiofaunal animals. These multicellular critters are so small that some of them slip through the spaces in between individual grains of sand like crawling through the worlds largest McDonalds ball pit. For these diverse animals, an entire world exists within a few spoons full of sand, and small beach or a few meters of good mud contains multitudes. Using microscopes and Mastersizers I can find numerical measurements to describe this Antarctic environment as well, but it’s still difficult to intuitively understand what life is like when grains of sand are the size of boulders.
Scale adds context to observations. It allows for comparisons between icebergs and inverts and enables us to distinguish between things that are very large and very small. As our cruise comes to an end, I realize that I am again struggling to comprehend scale. Placing this expedition into the context of my own life is challenging because I am uncertain how to measure it. None of the previous yardsticks of my life seem like adequate scale bars; Antarctica feels too big. I feel a little sorry for all my future fieldwork, knowing that it will inevitably be compared to this cruise, but mostly I feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to lose my sense of scale.
Will M. Ballentine
Ph.D Student, Dorgan Lab
University of South Alabama / Dauphin Island Sea Lab
Latitude: -65 17.6889 Longitude: -66 00.5287
The cruise is winding down, with only a few sampling days remaining. I remain inspired by the flexibility of our scientific leadership as best-laid plans go awry and amazed by the small projects my peers are completing in between sampling events. Scientists, as a rule, do not handle boredom well, and we have spent three months on this ship. There are brittlestar behaviors on video, sea urchin embryos painstakingly preserved, pterobranch zooids in tubes, and sea spiders walking …. slowly …. toward a camera. New collaborations were formed, new projects proposed, and I’m certain new ideas will continue to flow between this inspiring group. I came to Antarctica as somebody trained in sorting meiofauna, the animals that live between grains of marine sediment. I love the diversity of every petri dish; I’ve pulled out microscopic specimens from 18 PHYLA on this cruise! In my spare time, I got to know new species of one of my favorite phyla: Kinorhyncha, or mud dragons.
Kinorhynchs are entirely microscopic, which means they are often overlooked. They move through the sediment by puffing out their introvert, a spike-covered balloon surrounding their mouth that pushes sediment apart to allow their bodies to wiggle through. They are, in a word, bizarre. Naturally, I adore them. The hydro lab team loves some good mud. In my case, I take buckets of it and rather unceremoniously pour it back and forth in a technique known as “bubble and blot”. After sloshing the mud around really well (and usually getting a fair amount all over myself), I wait 15 minutes for the sediment to sink. Kinorhynchs are usually found stuck to the surface tension, held to the bubbles by their water-repellent outer cuticle. If you gently lay a piece of paper across the surface, and rinse it gently through a super-find net, you can catch the kinorhynchs without the mud! Like many techniques specific to certain taxa, it’s a bit more art than science.
Once I get the result into dishes, I get to go dragon hunting. I typically sort every petri plate twice: once thoroughly looking across the bottom of the plate, and one refocused to look at the surface tension instead. Picking up such small animals requires specialized equipment: I travel with Irwin Loops, microscopic bubble wand-like loops of wire on wooden handles that I can use to pick up kinorhynchs safely. This led me to a large number of kinorhynchs that look different than any I’ve ever seen. They have long spines down their back, and … well, if a kinorhynch can have a bad hair day, they’re having one. Is it a new species? Perhaps!
Identifying kinorhynchs at first glance appears no different from other animals: there is a dichotomous key that guides you through a “choose your own adventure” of physical traits. The process is more complicated because kinorhynchs are TINY. To key a kinorhynch, I have to mount a specimen. Not to a microscope slide (the slide itself is ten times thicken than the animal!), but between two delicate glass coverslips. This allows me to zoom all the way in on my microscope on both sides of the animal, the top and the bottom. The resulting “slide” is quite fragile, but thankfully, the ship has a 3-D printer so I was able to make some handy cover-slip-holders to bring my precious new specimens safety home.
So even on a day like today, when bad weather kept us from trawling, I have plenty of mud to bubble, and dragons to find. I add my microscopic favorites to the list of animals that we are getting to know in our spare time. And as I prepare specimens to ship across oceans to experts on the group, I sit here knowing that I may be the first person to ever see some of these animals. It’s not an uncommon occurrence when you study the overlooked meiofauna, but it’s an amazing feeling.
Ph.D. student in the Kocot lab
University of Alabama
One of the most exciting parts of the Icy Inverts cruise has been seeing, in real life, all of the interesting animals that I previously only had seen in articles and PowerPoint slides. Seeing these cool animals has been one of the more thrilling parts of this cruise. So, there are many animals I could tell you about, but today I want to put the spotlight on a particular group of animals that I personally pay quite a bit of attention to–the Sterechinus sea urchins.
Sea urchins are echinoderms, meaning that they more closely related to sand dollars, sea cucumbers, sea stars, and feather stars than any other extant organism. Sea urchins are among the earliest animal to be used to understand embryonic development. As a developmental model organism, they help us study how the animal form is derived from a single cell. Despite their round and spiny look as adults, sea urchin embryos share many features with vertebrate embryos. They develop certain embryonic structures in the same order as vertebrates do and are similarly bilaterally symmetrical. In more recent times, we’ve learned that sea urchin embryos use many of the same molecular mechanisms to grow as vertebrate embryos do. Back home at Auburn, I spend most of my lab time studying the embryonic development of a sea urchin that lives off the west coast of California, the purple sea urchin.
Sterechinus is the genus name of at least two species of sea urchins found only in the Southern Ocean, Sterechinus neumayeri and Sterechinus antarticus. Sterechinus are of particular interest to us because they develop similarly to other sea urchin species, except very, very slowly. For example, while the species I work with by home takes about 15 hours to reach what we call the ‘hatching’ stage, Sterechinus take almost a full week to reach that same stage. Naturally as scientists, we want to understand why, and this cruise gives us a chance to explore such questions in depth.
Throughout most of the cruise, I have been working with Sterechinus neumayeri which have a bright red coloration (see pictures). I keep them in a cold-room in the ship called Big Antarctica, where we keep them close to their natural temperature at around 0° C. Since we replicate their natural conditions as much as possible, we get to see some of their interesting behaviors. Like other sea urchins, Sterechinus use their tube feet to get around. They pump water into their tube feet to help extend them past theirs spines. And then use suckers at the ends of their tube feet to grab on to things, like the aquarium glass. Candace and I placed some red algae in the tank with them, and these urchins wasted no time munching on it, and even wearing it around! In some of the pictures you can see one fashionably dressed in the red algae. It is not clear really why they do this, but this behavior could help them hide from threats in the wild, as these little urchins make themselves look like some unassuming red plant on the seabed.
Latitude -67 51.40 Longitude 67 39.91
As I stand out at the bow of the ship after a long shift of sifting mud and sorting samples, the view takes my breath away. From all sides I see snow topped mountains reaching all the way from the water to the clouds. The “day shift” is currently working and since the boat is still, I can assume that some sort of sampling event is underway. With the boat still, the birds are all that can be heard, and everything feels calm. We’re currently sitting in what seems to be a bay and so the waves are subdued. Glancing around, a few birds can be seen in mid-flight and a two others can be seen floating in the water in the distance. At closer inspection, these birds floating in the water are penguins floating on their stomachs, occasionally diving down only to pop back up again a few feet closer. I instinctively reach for my phone for the opportunity to document this, but I stop myself. There is only a few more days of sampling before the ship turns towards Chile again and we’re headed home. I decided I much preferred experiencing the inquisitive penguins in the moment, as the days I can do so on this trip are coming to an end. The amount of breathtaking experiences I’ve experienced while on this three-month trip was much greater than what I had expected this trip would hold, and now it feels surreal that there is so little time left.
This trip has had so many twists and turns from the very start. This trip had originally planned on being about a month and a half but was extended when the pandemic made travel difficult and quarantine necessary. Stubborn sea ice later forced a change in sampling localities, and a few sampling events had a few unforeseen hiccups. Based on my experience in marine fieldwork, the occasional trawl going awry is not terribly uncommon, even with as talented and knowledgeable of a crew as is on this ship. Even with all of the technology available to try to predict the best place to sample, putting most sampling equipment into the water is essentially done blind, with only the cable tension as feedback for what is really going on under the water.
Days with limited samples available can be disappointing, but for some they provide an opportunity. While most days hold primarily sorting and processing samples, when these aren’t available, it opens up other science to be able to take place. A few other scientists have started small projects to work on studying the live animals they have available. Something that I’ve been taking advantage of is recording behavior of aplacophorans. Aplacophora is a group of shell-less molluscs with a worm-shaped body, and is the taxon that I study. Little is known about their behavior and while I don’t have the opportunity to bring them back alive, I have the pleasure of having live ones at my disposal now. When my advisor first suggested using his GoPro to record one of the aplacophorans, the idea intrigued me. I had been taking short recordings of them occasionally when photographing them, none of which was more than about ten minutes or so. Usually in this time, they would move their little head around to sense their surroundings and then start moving off camera. Aplacophorans aren’t exactly the speed racer of the animal kingdom. They aren’t even necessarily fast for benthic invertebrate standards. Their speed could be compared to that of a snail, of which they move on a reduced version of a foot, a snail’s means of transportation.
While recording the movement of our sampled aplacophorans originally seemed like a fun thing to observe and a potentially useful thing to record them happy, doing so has created new questions and new excitement. The first few specimens, which after sensing their surroundings, would head for the sides of the dish and try to head upwards up the side of the container. At least one of these is a species commonly found wrapped around hydroids. Yesterday however I recorded an aplacophoran that is commonly associated with the sediment (Fig 4). It had a very different response to being recorded. After making a bit of a loop around the container, it appeared like it was trying to use its most anterior end to push down onto the bottom of the container (see video). Perhaps it was trying to dig! Though this species is primarily found in samples with large amounts of sediment, they haven’t been documented necessarily living within the sediment nor have they been documented living on top. If this one was attempting to dig, it might aide us in knowing more of how these little mollusks live their lives. The next step is going to be putting a bit of sediment in the container and to observe how this effects its behavior. Having the privilege to work with and study live animals is not something that I will get to do terribly often with aplacophora, likely only when I’m working in the field. I consider myself extremely lucky to have this opportunity. Getting the chance to study my dream taxa in such a beautiful area as Antarctica, who could ask for more?
Latitude: 66° 34.14’ S Longitude: 68° 21.71’ W
How does riding a stationary bike for 10 minutes wind up taking over an hour? Well, it happens when those 10 minutes are minutes of arc that are counting down on the GPS display on the TV monitor in the shipboard gym. As I start peddling on the now-familiar, frustratingly oh-so-stationary bike, we are approaching something amazing, to me at least—the Antarctic Circle, one of the 5 major circles of latitude on earth. On this trip, we have already passed 3 of the other 5—the equator, the line of latitude cutting the earth in half between the north and south hemispheres, as well as the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, the northern- and southernmost latitudes where the sun appears overhead at the June and December solstices respectively. The Antarctic Circle is the northernmost latitude where the sun can be seen overhead for 24 hours (on the December solstice, the first day of summer in Antarctica and the rest of the Southern Hemisphere). In general, I enjoy making up little rituals and challenges for myself, especially for anything I imagine to be a special occasion. I also love biking. So, when we are crossing a major line of latitude, I try to make an offering of sweat and effort on the bike. Maybe it’s for luck. Maybe it’s just to make crossing an invisible line on the globe feel more momentous. In any case, I find it very soothing.
For crossing the equator, I challenged myself to ride 100 nautical miles (about 115 standard miles) on the stationary bike. It took several hours and gave me ample time to acquaint myself with the definition of a nautical mile and some of the mental math around sea navigation. The globe is divided along lines of longitude and latitude, measured in degrees. A nautical mile is defined such that each degree of arc on one of these lines is 60 nautical miles apart. So, each minute of arc (as seen in the heading of these blog posts) represents 1 nautical mile (60 minutes in a…degree? perfectly sensible). My Antarctic Circle bike ride came at the end of a 12 hour shift collecting and packing samples. I was excited about crossing another major line but not about to make any major efforts on a stationary bike. I did a quick estimate for myself. We were close to 66° 23’ S latitude—about 10 nautical miles north of the circle (at 66° 33.805’ S), with the ship pointing almost due southwest at about 227° (or 47° off of a due south course), meaning we would be making a diagonal route to the circle that I could approximate as a right triangle with 10 nautical mile long sides… using Pythagoras’ theorem I know the remaining side—the course we would take to get to the circle—was about Ö200 or about 14 nautical miles. The ship travels at about 10.5 knots (nautical miles per hour) so(!) if I started then, I could expect to spend a bit less than an hour and a half on the bike before hitting my finish line. Just enough time for me to wind up exhausted and ready for a long rest at the end.
So I made my little solo ride. It was bizarre to me how quickly I got into the zone, in spite of the noticeable pitching and rolling of the ship. I busied myself at times checking my pace and imagining how funny it would be if I could ride an actual bike across the ocean. 10.5 knots (12 mph) would be a pleasant pace to bike for a long while. But our little ship has been doing it almost all the time for months now, day and night, rain, sleet, snow, and ice. Before I know it, we have crossed the circle. I dismount and stretch, finish my water and peek outside. The sea is gloomy and oddly free of much ice. I think about our ship, who never gets to rest until the job is done, and sheepishly duck off to shower and sleep, thankful for her tireless work, and the people around me who care for her.
James Townsend, Ph.D.
Marine Biological Laboratory
Remembering John Pearse
This blog entry honors John Pearse who was a world-renowned invertebrate biologist who made significant strides in understand Antarctic fauna. John passed this year and has left a legacy not only of quality science, but of enthusiasm and support especially for earlier career stage scientists. He directly influenced several of the scientists on this research expedition. As a tribute to John, we thought we would share a few reflections with you.
I first met John Pearse at a conference where I was giving what was likely one of my first invited talks ever. Nervous, I got up and during my presentation, I scanned the crowd and noticed him sitting there. It’s not that I didn’t know who he was, heck, I likely had referenced his work on reproduction in Antarctic invertebrates many times by that point. Additionally, I knew who he was through conferences… when you’re a young grad student, you tend to look out for the giants in your field, and John was definitely one of those, and either run up to them and introduce yourself, or hide in fear that they won’t like you or your work. I did the latter, not knowing any better. Anyhow, back to the conference talk… I gave my presentation and at the end of the session, Jim McClintock who was hosting, introduced me to John. We talked for a little bit about my work and where it was going, what was next, etc. I got to shake his hand, tell him how much I admired his scientific contributions, he laughed, shook it off, and we went our separate ways. After that, year after year, we would see each other at an annual meeting, and every year… I mean EVERY year, he remembered who I was and what I did. John was a legend in the field... and he bothered to remember me, a young faculty member at a conference. It made a lasting impression to this day.
I know that there are likely hundreds of stories like this out there… impressions he made, impacts on careers, and all the other personal contributions John made to people’s lives. My interactions with him were not unusual. But to me, they were absolutely special and I will miss seeing John every January at SICB.
I am not sure when exactly I met John and Vicki Pearse, but it was probably at an American Zoologists annual meeting (now called Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology). I was a graduate student or early postdoc working on the relationships of animal phyla and thus I was very familiar with his invertebrate textbook. Years later got to know John much better during a cruise on the R/V Point Sur off the coast of California. John’s excitement for animals was palpable even as a senior scientist. The amazing thing was that it seemed that all invertebrates were John’s favorite animals and he always took time to teach a thing or two about the animals. His work on Antarctic animals, especially echinoderms (urchins, sea stars, etc.), set the foundation for much of our current understanding of invertebrates in the Southern Ocean. His efforts ranged from their life history and reproduction, to unique adaptations, to physiology. In particular, some of his classic works describe the unusually long time it takes some invertebrate larvae to develop into juvenile animals. To John’s credit, he was refreshingly open to new ideas and always supportive of students studying invertebrates… and he always did it with a smile.
I went to the University of California, Santa Cruz as an undergraduate in Marine Biology specifically because I wanted to take Kelp Forest Ecology, having no idea that I would take several other classes from John Pearse along the way to taking that one, and end up doing a Master’s in Marine Science with him. John’s classes were my favorites, hands down. Invertebrate Zoology with John and Todd Newberry, wandering around campus and visiting the black widow that had lived under the same rock for twenty years, finding a cricket with a nematomorph parasite, and the trip with John to the intertidal in Monterey. Intertidal Ecology was wonderful, experiencing the many intertidal environments that can be accessed from Santa Cruz, and John incorporated undergraduates in ongoing research, monitoring the recovery of the intertidal from the sewer outfall, a project that he continued many years into his retirement. I use the word retirement loosely, as John might have officially retired but that didn’t slow him down! And of course, Intertidal Ecology, diving at Hopkins for a full quarter. There is nothing more amazing than diving there.
I am here in the Antarctic in part because John encouraged me several times over the years to find a way to get here. I remember seeing some rather wild-eyed photos of him after he overwintered. He obviously loved the Antarctic, and now that I am here I am beginning to comprehend why. As an advisor, both undergraduate and graduate, John was always encouraging and genuinely supportive of students (myself obviously included). He cared about all of us students, both as scientists and as people. I think the words that most immediately come to my mind when I try to describe John are kind and caring, and I will miss his hugs of greeting at meetings.
Sarah Gerken (UCSC 1989-1992, 1993-1995)
Latitude: -66 03.5875 Longitude: -66 16.3921
00:01 hrs, November 3, 2020-
As the calendar day starts on the boat, my workday is just ending. “Day shift” is relieved at midnight from that shift’s activities and we head over to the mess for what is, to us, dinner, to the night Shift, breakfast, and to those with a normal sleep schedule, is Mid Rats (Midnight Rations). Tonight is fettucine alfredo with chicken. I eat quickly and then head straight to bed. I am notorious for staying up too late and I’m trying to force myself to get more sleep to avoid the fabled burnout that comes with being overeager and under-rested. I briefly ask Chief Scientist/my PhD advisor/candy fairy/invert extraordinaire Ken Halanych what the plan is for the next day. As with most days, the answer is unclear. We’ve had to adjust our route away from the Weddell Sea because of too much ice and are instead heading toward Marguerite Bay, which I have been lovingly calling Margaritaville. Ken does let me know I should be up early to catch some intense sights in transit to our next station.
00:30 hrs, November 3, 2020-
I try and read a bit in bed, but pass out almost immediately. Goodnight!
06:30 hrs, November 3, 2020-
Awake again. I try to go back to bed, but my old age of 25 has caused me to become one of those people who only sleeps about 6 hours a night. I resign myself to getting out of bed and finding something to do instead of fighting it. I also look forward to going to True Breakfast (night shift lunch, the meal the day shift never sees). I head downstairs and am greeted with the usual chorus of “Caitlin, why are you up?” and “Caitlin, go back to bed”. After a month of this, they should know better by now! I work a bit on a manuscript, get to make myself a breakfast sandwich, and work on prepping samples for packing and shipping. Today I’m getting some of the 2 ml tube samples done, which is easy but can be a bit tedious. This requires making sure all labels are legible and wrapping each tube in a parafilm tape seal. Nusrat will be so proud of me for getting this done early.
10:00 hrs, November 3, 2020-
Everyone who isn’t up already, is woken up and we all head out to see the Le Maire Strait. Giant glaciers funnel us into a space which seems only about ¼ mile across where we’re totally surrounded by mind boggling cliffs and ice on either side. The past few days have made the Straits of Magellan looks like child’s play. Every day is more beautiful than the next it seems. Everyone hangs out on the bow until they’re too cold or wind swept to stand it anymore and we all head inside around 11:30, just in time for True Lunch (day shift breakfast, night shift dinner).
12:00 hrs, November 3, 2020-
We’re transiting so there isn’t any sampling to be done yet, but on these days we use the time to catch up on other work, organize the lab, do more packing prep, change samples out of old preservative and into new their final solutions, or work on any side projects we’ve cooked up along the way that don’t fall directly under the grant objectives. We finally arrive at our new station around 17:00 hrs, just before True Dinner (day shift lunch, night shift’s lost meal).
18:00 hrs, November 3, 2020-
After multi-beaming to find the best spot to collect from, we usually use the yo-yo cam or a GoPro to get a sneak peak at the sea floor. We can’t do that today because we’ve been breaking ice, meaning the water where we usually put the camera in is not water, it’s a few feet of ice. This means doing our trawl or epibenthic sled without quite knowing what to expect, but I think it just adds to the excitement. I joke about getting one of those trawls that’s just mud and rocks. Famous last words.
18:30hrs, November 3, 2020-
The Blake trawl comes up and it’s, you guessed it, mud and rocks. This is an unfortunate but real part of our sampling. Somedays we just don’t get the right stuff, and other days like today, a rock that is just a little too sharp rips our net at the seafloor and the sample comes up relatively small and pretty rocky. Not all is lost though! The team shifts gears from processing like a normal trawl to sifting through the mud for the meiofaunal samples the Kocot lab loves. This goes relatively quickly since the whole sample is probably only two buckets full, but we find some cool little things along the way. A couple scaphapods, a few sea spiders, your usual suspects of nephtyid worms, a stray ophiuroid. I’m a combination of disappointed but also a little relieved. It’s windy and snowing and not the fun kind of snow that’s fluffy snowflakes, and holiday music, and magical snowmen. It’s the kind of snow that feels a little bit more like tiny ice knives coming at you at 20 mph. Don’t worry, we still got in a few snowballs.
19:30 hrs, November 3, 2020-
The few, but appreciated, samples are brought in and processed for preservation. Species are cataloged and preserved. I get to blast my favorite songs of the moment from the speakers that amphipod whisperer, Kyle David, has lent us for the lab space.
20:00hrs, November 3, 2020-
I head up to my room to change into some dry socks and grab my mug to go get some tea. I think I’ll get some more work done on my manuscript and a talk I’m prepping for a virtual conference. I get into my room and I’m more tired than I thought I was when downstairs with all the adrenaline of the day. I’m not going to go to sleep yet, there’s still stuff I want to get done while we transit for the rest of our shift. I’m just going to sit down on my bed for a few minutes while I warm up…
00:30 hrs, November 4, 2020-
I wake up with a start. So much for not falling asleep! I still have to write my blog!
Ph.D. Student in the Halanych Lab
Now This is Amphipod Racing!
Latitude: -66 03.5875 Longitude: -66 16.3921
I must confess to having an ulterior motive when I agreed to come on this research cruise. I wanted to fall in love. Not with a dashing sea captain or mermaiden but with a study organism. Having jumped around, studying animals from frogs to sea slugs, I’ve often felt envious of my colleagues who seem completely committed to just one group of animals, publishing paper after paper monogamously. I won’t say I’m willing to put a ring on it just yet, but I am intrigued enough by a certain group of animals that I’ve encountered on the cruise that I’m willing to write about them for my blog post. In between the vibrant starfish and majestic octopods there was a certain little group of crustaceans that caught my eye. I’m talking, of course, about amphipods. Amphipods are a group of small (1-340mm) laterally compressed crustaceans with around 10,000 species, most of which are marine (NOT to be confused with isopods which are loathsome, longitudinally compressed crustaceans often known as “God’s mistake”). They’re not always super appealing to look at (though see below for some stunning exceptions) but they do have a lot of interesting qualities that intersect in unique ways that I think could help answer some really neat questions.
In my last blog post I talked about the latitudinal biodiversity gradient, the tendency for there to be more species closer to the equator. Amphipods are one group that do not follow this rule, in fact the number of species appears to increase with latitude. I’ve seen more amphipod species in the few weeks I’ve been in the Antarctic than I’ve seen in four years living in South Florida and the Galapagos. Another feature of Antarctic amphipods that’s shared with a lot of marine invertebrates at high latitudes is polar gigantism, which is exactly what is sounds like, marine invertebrates in polar regions are generally much larger than their warmer water cousins. The reasons for polar gigantism are still not very well understood but may correspond with the abundance of oxygen, food, and elements used in shell-building at the poles. However, it may also have something to do with an absence of predators, or the more efficient heat exchange that comes with larger body sizes. A third attribute that may also tie in with the first two is polyploidy, when organisms have multiple copies of all their DNA. Polyploidy often occurs before lots of new species appear, flowering plants, bony fishes, and even all vertebrates (including you!) have had polyploidy at some point in our evolutionary history. Another thing that can happen after a polyploidy event is an increase in body size. For example, tropical clawed frogs, who are polyploid, are more than twice the size of their closest non-polyploid relative, the western clawed frog. Finally, polyploids are more likely to occur near the poles. The reasons for this are also not known but there is some evidence to suggest that polyploids possess greater environmental resilience and adaptive potential than non-polyploids. Another possibility is that cold temperatures actually create polyploids through errors in cell division, or perhaps polyploids are simply forced toward more extreme ranges due to competition from non-polyploids. To my knowledge there is only one Antarctic amphipod currently known to be polyploid, named Charcotia obesa, but given how understudied they are I suspect there may be more.
In conclusion, I think Antarctic amphipods are a really cool system that offer a lot of neat opportunities to explore latitudinal biodiversity gradients, polar gigantism, polyploidy, and more as well has how all these different phenomena intersect. I hope I’ve done a good job convincing you of how cool these little bugs are (though not so much so that you go out and answer all the questions before I get a chance to) but if you’re still not convinced, check out some of the cool pictures below!
Ph.D. Student in the Halanych Lab
A day in the life
Latitude: -64 22.12 S Longitude: -61 58.67 W
It’s been about 2 and a half weeks since we arrived in Antarctica and began sampling and it has truly been a whirlwind of activity. Entire shifts spent relentlessly working broken up by hours of inactivity and staring at the ship tvs to see when we’ll arrive at our next site and get to do it all over again! At each new site we typically have a series of equipment we put out in a specific order. First is the multibeam (a sonar that emits sound waves to map the seabed), then the yo-yo cam (a camera attached to a frame with a weight on it that takes a photo each time the weight hits the ground) then the Blake trawl (a metal frame with a net attached that’s dragged across the bottom of the ocean), the CTD (sensors that measure Conductivity, Temperature, Depth, and other physical properties of the seawater around it), and finally the multicore (a series of cores attached to a frame that can take samples from the seafloor without disturbing them). All of this equipment is very important to the work that we do but the one that many of us pay attention to is the Blake. Because that’s the one that will bring up many of the specimens we are collecting. The first few trawls were a bit rocky, trying to figure out exactly what needs to be done and the best way to do it but after the first few we’ve really started to get into the swing of things!
Roughly 20 minutes before the trawl comes up, we all layer up and gear up; float coats, baklavas, steel-toed boots and all (as someone from Florida I’ve never been so bundled up before!). Out on deck we fill up buckets with sea water which we will then use to sort out the animals into large groups such as Ophiuroids, Crustaceans, Bryozoans, etc. The trawl itself can be pretty variable so we have to be ready for anything. Sometimes we get nothing but tunicates and mud, while other days we get a clean, high diversity trawl with a little bit of everything in it! Those are my favorite although I’ll admit getting really muddy to the point where we have to hose ourselves down is pretty fun too! After a while of sorting a few of us go in to set up the lab with ice bins so that the buckets of animals can be further sorted into morphospecies and preserved how we want them.
In the beginning everyone helps out with the initial sorting but once we get into the lab, we often have specific jobs that we do. We try to switch things around every once in a while, so people can get a chance to do it all, but we also fall into our own niches. Caitlin Redak for example is a pro at taking muscle samples from the sea cucumber, Bathyploites, while no one knows the Bryozoans better than our very own Megan McCuller. Michael Tassia takes photos of all the animals, Kyle Donnelly fixes them, and I am the bookkeeper. Everything we do to the animals is recorded in the books (see pic) and I am the one who keeps track of it all. Each specimen gets a unique number and it’s my job to keep track of that as well. Once we have separated the animals into morphospecies, I give it a number, Mike takes a photo, and then I let whoever is in charge of the animals know exactly what we are doing with them. How many are we taking? Will we take whole individuals or tissue samples? Will we be freezing them or putting them in ethanol or formalin or any combination of the three? It’s my job to stay in communication with our Chief Scientist to make sure we are getting the specimens we need and preserving them correctly. Some days things are pretty slow while others I feel like I’ve been running around for the full 12 hours. I love those days the most, especially since we usually get a visit from our very own candy fairy, Kenneth Halanych, with chocolates and jolly ranchers and the occasional Halloween leftovers like candy corn to keep us going!
Auburn University Museum of Natural History
Pterobranchs, oh my!
Latitude: -62 56.3150 Longitude: -58 14.6020
There’s no other way to put it, pterobranchs are strange little critters and there’s a reason you’ve probably never heard of them. They’re small, cryptic, and to be quite honest, don’t appear to look like anything but a ball of mud or algae. It takes a keen eye to pick one out from the smorgasbord of emptied Blake trawl – especially when your entire field-of-view is filled with sea stars, crustaceans, and bryozoans. Once you spot one, however, you’re likely to see quite a few more of these little friends here in Antarctica!
Pterobranchs, along with their more conspicuous acorn worm cousins, belong to a group called Hemichordata. Whereas there are approximately 200 species of described acorn worms worldwide, there are fewer than 30 described species of pterobranchs extant today. If you’re familiar with fossils, pterobranchs are close allies to the highly diverse graptolites. The differences between pterobranchs and acorn worms extend past the number of species too. Whereas acorn worms are solitary deposit feeders occupying the soft sediments of many coastlines (and the deep sea), pterobranchs are small, colonial filter feeders which are very difficult to collect. There are so few reliable locations to obtain Pterobranchs, that Antarctica is at the top of the list of locales where we can obtain sufficient quantities and diversity for these little critters!
Hemichordates possess several traits that make them particularly interesting from the perspective of deuterostome evolution. Deuterostomes are the group of animals that were first named (and unified) by the developmental trait of forming the anus before the mouth, a trait that we, as chordates, also share with the hemichordates and echinoderms (i.e., urchins, sea stars, and their allies). The last common ancestor of deuterostomes is also where pharyngeal gill slits arose – the same gill slits present in hemichordates, sea squirts, fish, and gave rise to components of our inner ear and jaw. Though these deuterostome traits are comparatively conspicuous and well-studied in development and body plans of acorn worms (providing critical information for our understanding of the last common ancestor to deuterostomes), far less is known about pterobranchs.
Because pterobranchs are colonial animals, they possess many strange and interesting traits, like reproducing both sexually and asexually, having tissue conduits (called stolons) with which they maintain physical connections to their neighboring clones, and fortifying the philosophical difficulties of drawing a line between “the individual” and “the whole organism.” Admittedly, that last quality can be discussed over a beverage at length (for fun), the earlier qualities are part of what make pterobranchs so interesting – particularly when one frames questions from the perspective of how these dang weirdos arose from the same ancestor that gave rise to acorn worms (or taking another step back, how pterobranchs arose from the last common ancestor of all deuterostomes). To help address these questions (and others), we will be sequencing the genome of the pterobranch, Cephalodiscus hodgsoni, closing the last major gap in available genomes for the major deuterostome body plans.
By comparing the genome of pterobranch to those of, for example, acorn worms, urchins, sea stars, sea squirts (both solitary and colonial), and vertebrates, we will be able to address questions like, “What are the genetic consequences/modifications to becoming colonial?” and, “Are there genomic components which are comparatively conserved, or immutable, among the major deuterostome body plans; and, if so, what are they and what role do they play?” Not to mention my favorite inquiry, “What make you tick, you friendly little weirdo?” But until we get back onto terra firma where we can start addressing these questions, I’ll be here here sorting through mud for more pterobranchs.
Ph.D. student in the Halanych Lab
Latitude: -62 17.4243 Longitude: -058 08.3450
Many of the scientists onboard have their own specialties – animals that they research, prefer to handle, or know how to identify – anywhere from small critters that live between sand grains to those that are magnitudes of scale larger. My favorite group are the bryozoans, or moss animals, which are colonial and can form substantial structures from many, many individuals called zooids. For most marine bryozoans, each zooid is a U-shaped gut and a mouth surrounded by a ring of tentacles all inside a calcified box.
For me, one of the fascinating things about bryozoans is that they are hugely diverse! Colonies can encrust rocks, be flexible plant-like fronds, or grow into big ruffled structures. In Antarctica, many different genera have developed similar growth forms. This may make it a bit more difficult to do a quick identification by eye (without aid of a microscope), but it brings up the question – why? There are a few different possible causes, like ice scour, low metabolism, and food availability, but a small group of the science team are interested in questions regarding current and flow. Since bryozoans feed by filtering food out of the water, orientation of colony surfaces is important. What better way to investigate this than by scanning bryozoans we collect on the trip?
I’m using what’s called photogrammetry to do just that! Photogrammetry is done by taking photos of a specimen at different angles, then putting all the photos into software that will translate overlapping areas from 2D images into points that form a 3-dimensional structure. Luckily, our Marine Technicians have made this somewhat easier by fashioning a turntable, reducing the time it takes to get the images needed for modeling.
Not only does this allow us to have a digital version of various growth forms, it also opens up the possibility of making a 3D print of representative whole colonies. Prints can be used to see how water flows through and around the colony, perhaps giving additional insight into why Antarctic bryozoans grow like they do. Check out the pictures for a taste!\
Collections Manager, Non-molluscan Invertebrates
North Carolina Museum of Natural History
Latitude: -63 20.5824 Longitude: -56 45.2699
Today was an exceptionally good day, for a cumacean fancier. We have been collecting small organisms from the mud for a few weeks now, with a cumacean (or comma shrimp) here and there, but today there were SO MANY! Among them were some lovely lively examples of the species Cyclaspis gigas, in a particularly striking orange and white pattern, as well as many individuals of Holostylis helleri, a spiky white cumacean. Cumaceans come in a wide variety of shapes, and one of my purposes in being present on this cruise is to document the color patterns that cumaceans have while alive. Small organisms are usually collected as part of bulk samples that are preserved and then sorted later, because sorting requires microscopes and specialized equipment that isn’t always available in the field, and also takes quite a while. Many organisms lose their coloration very quickly after they are preserved, which means we don’t know what they look like when alive, or if there are species specific color patterns that could help identify them. However, we are lucky enough to have microscopes and amazing camera setups that take really nice pictures even while the ship is rocking and rolling or breaking ice, so we are able to document their colors before they are preserved.
Studying small organisms requires dedication and a willingness to sweat the small stuff. Our time is split between working on deck and working in the lab.
Sarah Gerken, Ph.D.
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Alaska Anchorage
Latitude: -63 54.276 Longitude: -57 26.703
Antarctica is a beautiful place. Before this trip, I had never given much thought to the scenery of Antarctica. In my mind, visualizing Antarctica always produced the same image, just a ton of white snow every where with not a whole lot detail to it. However, I quickly learned once we reached the continent that just like other continents, there is plenty of variety to be found. The number of different sceneries we have found ourselves in in quite astounding; each day I try to find some time to get outside and appreciate the constantly changing landscape as the vessel travels from site to site. Our first contact with the ice was giant icebergs floating in the sea, miles away in the distance and occasionally coming within a few hundred yards. As these giant monoliths floated across the horizon, I remember finding it difficult to imagine just how massive these distance icebergs were. Even at a distance these icebergs seemed massive, and the sight was quite astounding. That is my first memory of sea ice; waking up and looking out my porthole to the outside. Unbeknownst to me at the time, we would be traveling though many different ice-covered sceneries, each one different and beautiful in its own right. Soon the distant icebergs turned into more numerous smaller bergs and then into a sea of floes. It happened at night, as I remember sitting in the galley and hearing a loud sound coming from outside the hull. Looking out the window I saw an endless sea of ice chunks forming an amorphous cover to the Antarctic sea. The sea ice stretched out forever into the darkness, evoking and intriguing yet uncanny feel to the area. The next day(or maybe a couple days after that; time has no meaning here) we woke up to the Palmer punching it’s way through a gigantic solid ice field with a breathtaking backdrop of snow capped brown mountains. The ice field was composed of millions of differently sized ice chunks all frozen together into one giant ice sheet. A field of ice trapped inside ice; the ice chunks in the field had different colors and thicknesses to them, creating a varying assortment of trapped ice chunks beneath the solid surface. Every here and there you could see a giant iceberg rising over the ice field, not trapped beneath its frozen surface but still rendered immobile by the ice field’s grasp. Fallen snow was piled up across the landscape, and in the distance, we saw a snow-covered mountain range swallowed by clouds. The sun rays reflected off seemingly every surface of the expanse, creating a beautifully lit and composed scene with not a cloud in the sky. Other days, we pass by the waters edge where hordes of penguins atop floating icebergs can be seen in front of a mountainous backdrop which the setting sun casts golden rays through the clouds onto the rocky faces of the range. When the boat gets father away from land we have been able to see the most beautiful sunsets; icebergs of every size off into the horizon while the sunset creates deep purples, vibrant pinks and warm yellows. Silhouettes of albatrosses and other Antarctic birds occasionally come into view, gliding across the landscape in giant, beautiful sweeps. Some days the giant icebergs float right by the boat, allowing us to truly appreciate the texture and form of the floating ice giants. On one of these days the sky was clear and wonderfully blue. The other day I went outside in the early afternoon and the boat was stopped. Outside the boat was the Southern Ocean, but the surface was so placid it seemed to be a lake. The calm surface of the ocean reflected the image of the mountains just by the shore. Penguins could be seen swimming below the surface, and small icebergs stood still. It was extremely quiet outside; the wind was not blowing, and the idle boat produced no sound.
This continent truly is untamed. The wilderness and scenery are nearly untouched by human development resulting in a picturesque scene everywhere you look. I’ve added some photos of the beautiful scenery I’ve been describing, and hopefully you too will be able to appreciate the unbelievable scenery hidden away at the bottom of the world.
Thanks for reading,
What's in a (worm's) name?
Latitude: -63 55.147 Longitude: -57 24.880
Would a worm by any other name be as wriggly? While thinking about worm names may seem like a funny thing to do, it has dominated my days for the last two weeks. My name is Will Ballentine, and I am a Ph. D student at the University of South Alabama / Dauphin Island Sea Lab. I’m aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer with the Kocot team studying the tiny animals that live at the bottom of the sea in Antarctica. As several previous entries have mentioned, the first step in our research is collecting animals from the sea floor. While this is certainly a challenging step, it is only the first of many. After being scooped up from the sea floor, the animals (or buckets of mud in my case) are taken inside to be sorted and identified. Just as it is important for a medical doctor to know the name of the patient they’re examining, its important for scientists to know the scientific name of the animals we’re studying. Unfortunately, urchins don’t carry ID cards and worms speak lousy Latin, so its up to the scientists aboard the NBP to determine the scientific names of all the critters that emerge from the depths. In addition to helping with deck work, my primary job aboard the NBP is to identify all the worms that pass through the Kocot team’s lab. I couldn’t have been tasked with a better job because I love worms, particularly annelids also known as segmented worms.
Annelida is a hugely diverse phylum of animals and it’s my favorite because it’s completely comprised of worms. Annelids come in many shapes and sizes and range from stunningly beautiful to what can only be described as “gooey”. Because they are so diverse, identifying worms can be challenging. The first step in determining a worm’s name is the simplest and consists of looking at its face and body to see if I recognize it from memory. Worms, like all animals, are categorized according to a hierarchy of increasingly specific names, beginning with domain, and descending through phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. While I already know the phylum of all the worms I’m studying (Annelida), I can generally use the face and body of the worm to further identify it to the family level. Whereas the family level is often sufficient for our work in Antarctica, it is frequently necessary to identify a mystery worm (or any other animal we’re working with) all the way down to species. This can be much more challenging, and generally requires the use of a taxonomic key. A taxonomic key is a tool used to identify animals, and sometimes objects, across the sciences. It is a list of questions about the animal being identified that begins very broadly and becomes increasingly specific with each passing question. As more questions are answered, the list of possible species narrows until there is (hopefully) one option remaining, giving you the identity of your mystery worm. It reads similarly to a “choose your own adventure” novel, however, instead of “If you would like to enter the cave, proceed to page 16” it’s more along the lines of “If two eyes are present, proceed to line 8, if absent, line 7”. These keys are often essential to determining the exact species of a worm, and using them is a lot like solving a very wriggly puzzle.
My days on the NBP have been filled with a plethora of penguins, polar vistas, and wormy puzzles. Each morning, I wake up to a new dish of worms set aside by the previous shift and get to begin a whole new round of worm “Guess Who”. The annelid worms of Antarctica are stunning, and I’m eager to see what else this beautiful place has in store. (Worm pictures below identified to the family level)
Will M. Ballentine
Ph.D Student, Dorgan Lab
University of South Alabama / Dauphin Island Sea Lab
Latitude: -64 11.459 Longitude: -55 07.999
Thanksgiving looks a little different this year for those of us aboard the NBP, but we did decorate via a Secret Hand Turkey exchange (picture- this is only a sampling)! We are currently ~64 degrees south of the equator in the Weddell Sea, and though it’s a holiday, we are still sampling the ocean floor and finding more invertebrates! For me, that means today I am eagerly sorting through buckets of mud, searching for bizarre animals that are too small to see, moving samples with my trusty “macropipette” … which is an oddly appropriate tool for Thanksgiving (picture)! I use mine to suck up subsamples of sifted sediment and look for animals living between the sand grains. And no, I do NOT use the same one to baste turkeys back home.
When this crew of scientists met on our way south from San Francisco, each shared their sampling hopes and scientific dreams for the cruise with one another. All of us have things we are excited to see, but each has that ONE animal or group, our “if anybody finds this, call me, wake me up, scream it from the bridge, I NEED IT”. The best feeling in the world, better than finding your own samples, is handing a fellow scientist a dish or bucket that fulfills a sampling dream. We are a diverse group, so part of the joy of this cruise has been learning enough about one another’s favorite taxa to help.
Many of the animals we are pursuing here in Antarctica are understudied groups. “Understudied” is a self-perpetuating phenomenon in science- the animals are rare, and the scientific experts in the same animals are rarer. The only way to get to know these more uncommon animals is to sit with them for a while, ideally with an expert nearby to answer questions. This requires both animals and experts, in a conveniently confined space. Perhaps, say, a boat?
On the NBP, I can wander into other labs holding petri plates and always find somebody willing to help. I find tiny worm-like aplacophorans for my lab-mate Emily and in return learn what family they belong to. I’d never met a cumacean crustacean, and now I know how the handle them properly as I gather them for Sarah. My lab-mate Will patiently comes to my microscope to help me learn to identify tiny annelid worms, or to see yet ANOTHER phyllodocid annelid that I just have to show him (they have the cutest faces; picture). Before this cruise I’d never held a live sea spider; last night I got to run up to Andy and overly-excitedly (and thus not very articulately) tell him that I’d found three of the species he was hoping for in last night’s trawl (see picture). And I am amazed by the sharp eyes of my peers as they supply me with more and more of the tiny chitons (picture) I was most hoping to find for myself and collaborators!
But this week held melancholy moments as we got the news that the next two research cruises aboard the NBP had been cancelled due to COVID complications. It was a sudden and sharp reminder that we are incredibly blessed to be here, meeting animals and fulfilling scientific dreams, during this difficult time. We are doubly thankful for every trawl, every sample, every bit of ice we can break through, and more determined to make every moment count. So we are all happily working on Thanksgiving. Today is a day most of us would spend with family back home. But today, I am thankful for my scientific family at sea, and all I am learning from all of them.
Ph.D. student in the Kocot Lab
University of Alabama
November 25th, 2020
Latitude: -063 44.317 Longitude: -057 31.434
I am not a scientist, nor do I play one on TV. My title is marine lab technician, which fails at times to describe what I do. I oversee lab instrumentation and equipment: everything from -80 freezers to pipettes to microscopes, I oversee the safe use and storage of chemicals in the lab, and I help pack and ship scientific samples to their home institutions. On busy days, I assist on deck, deploying sampling equipment over the side, or guide sampling efforts on or near the shoreline. I have worked on a multitude of projects, with and for a variety of scientists and researchers, mostly in polar regions. Predominately, my time is split between the two US Antarctic Research Vessels: the Laurence M. Gould or the Nathaniel B. Palmer, which is where I am stationed currently. And to answer your question, no, I don’t like being cold. But, what I do like about the cold polar regions is the pristine quality, the diversity of life, working on a moving platform, and the planning and challenges that these expeditions face. The Antarctic Vessels host a wide range of scientific studies and I’ve had the privilege of being a part of a wide array of work: everything from physical oceanography: tides and currents, to chemical properties of our oceans, to phytoplankton, zooplankton, fish, seals, whales and yes, even the show stopper: penguins.
On this particular excursion, we are studying the biodiversity of benthic invertebrates: their regional variance, the distribution of species, and how they may have evolved. #icyinverts. As you may have imagined, there is an optimal time for work in Antarctica, spoiler alert its not the dead of winter. While there ARE projects during the winter, much of the oceanic fauna swells to life during the southern hemisphere spring and summer, when ice melts and algae and phytoplankton bloom creating the basis of the food chain. Antarctic scientific work therefore, means that high season falls during the northern hemisphere winter months and across many traditional holidays: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and we will be working round the clock, on deck and in the labs. Our scientists and support staff including the ship’s crew are split into shifts, which means they are always folks working, while another group takes their rest.
I have been working on the ships in my position for 10 years, which is to say I have spent 6 Christmases and the last 8 out 10 thanksgivings supporting science in the Antarctic. Perhaps, I should start a blog post called Thanksgivings on Ice, but I digress. Perhaps one of the most startling and astounding observations is that although these regions are harsh and cold and seemingly inhospitable to life as we think of it- the Antarctic is teeming with creatures, as evidenced in our work with invertebrates. The sheer magnitude of diversity is almost overwhelming. Every shape and color, feeding style, defense mechanism, locomotion and dispersal method imagined and unimagined, are to be found at the bottom of the sea, hidden from human view.
So on this day, the eve of Thanksgiving, for the ability to work here in this environment, to assist in the field of science with this group of scientists, technicians and crew, and for the diversity of the life aquatic, I give thanks.
Marine Laboratory Technician, US Antarctic Program
Asteroids in the Southern Ocean?
When we look up at the stars our imagination is captured by their power, great distance, and, of course, stellar size. But equally impressive in a different way are the stars that crawl along the sea bottom here in the Antarctic and around the world – sea stars!
Sea stars are marine animals that belong to the echinoderm phylum. This makes them relatives of other marine invertebrates such as feather stars, brittle stars, sea cucumbers, sea urchin, and sand dollars. Sea stars, along with their echinoderm relatives, may not resemble us very much at first glance. But they in fact sit on our side of the branch, as what would be the ancestor to both of our lineages split from the rest of the animal kingdom around the Cambrian explosion. Adult sea stars exhibit radial symmetry, meaning their appendages are arranged around a central axis, contributing to that distinctive star-like look. Their relationship to us and other animals is more easily seen by looking at their larval development. Sea star larvae develop certain early embryonic structures in the same order that we do, and exhibit bilateral symmetry, the left side mirroring the right side.
Sea stars belong to the class Asteroidea, which roughly translates to star-like. Many sea stars are commonly seen with five arms, but some species can have up to 40 arms. Sea stars can readily regenerate lost arms. In many circumstances, species can re-grow an entire body from a lost arm. In addition to their distinctive shape and varied sizes, sea stars come in a variety of colors, as you see from the photos. This Ice Inverts expedition has given us a wonderful opportunity to see their colorful diversity firsthand.
As we move across the Southern Ocean, each sample site presents its own interesting and colorful species of sea stars, many of them endemic to Antarctica. Some of them, even within the same species, vary wildly in color. “I am not sure if these are the same thing,” is quite a frequently heard comment during our sorting process. In most cases, it is not clear why these organisms have such stunning colors or how it helps them survive down here. But whether it is for camouflage, plays into a chemical defense system, or simply a byproduct of their diet, these asteroids ‘shine’ bright in the dark depths of the Antarctic.
The excitement of species
Latitude -63 39.4 Longitude -55 11.7
Waking up shortly after the sun has set to briefly join the members of the opposite shift for a meal, it often feels surreal. Midrats, the 11:30 pm-12:30 am night meal is what I start my day to, while for others it is their last meal of the day. This often causes minor confusion as to the correct way to discuss time. While some greet each other with good mornings, simultaneously good nights can be heard. I have even heard greetings simplified to “how is?” to be inclusive of different circadian rhythms.
Once on shift my day can be simplified to a few faucets: obtaining samples, sorting samples, and processing organisms. Though this sounds straight forward, each day does bring new surprises. When sampling via trawl, for example, it is hard to know what exactly will be in the net when it comes up. The only data we can receive about what is going on when the trawl is in the water is based on how much cable is out and what sort of force is exerted on the cable. No matter how many trawls you experience coming up, there is always a nervous excitement of what the next trawl will bring. Sometimes the net comes up overly full, sometimes it comes up practically empty, sometimes it is filled with primarily large fauna, and sometimes it comes up with what appears to be just a giant ball of mud. Despite this process being a near daily occurrence, the excitement occasionally still brings out scientists from the other shift, who want to at least see what was brought to the surface, despite the need to sleep.
Once the net comes up and the fauna is emptied from the net, scientists all gather around to coo at the various amazing animals that are seen. These animals then get sorted and processed. For the much smaller fauna, microscopes are needed. When sampling, there is often mud that comes up with the animals. This mud has a treasure trove of unique organisms as well. For some people, myself included, the mud is where their target animals reside. While some scientists groan at the muddiest samples which come up, other scientists rejoice. While from the exterior, muddy samples may not look like much, under a microscope a whole other world can be seen. There is huge amounts of biodiversity from animals that spend their lives between the sand grains. Some of these animals are younger ones of a larger, full grown counterpart, like baby brittle stars (pic). Others look far different than anything that you would expect to see of larger organisms, like Terrebellids (pic) or Aplacophora (pic).
After samples are sorted and are about to be processed, the scientists work together to try to ID the animals to the best of their abilities. Everyone has slightly different knowledge of different organisms, and no one is truly an expert in all the taxa seen. Though it was much different even only a few decades ago, many scientists rely heavily on the ability to use DNA to “barcode” animals after the cruise is complete. Though sorting based purely on morphology can be useful for processing and organizing samples and data, using DNA to identify animals is the most reliable.
Sampling the deeper reaches of the ocean is costly and time consuming. In comparison to terrestrial fauna and their ecology, marine benthic organisms are relatively unknown. With new terrestrial species being described every year, it’s no wonder why new invertebrate species are often able to be described from most sampling cruises that focus on benthic invertebrates. This cruise is unlikely to be any different. There have already been a few taxa which have been questioned as being new, but all of these will have to be further analyzed in the lab along with a thorough comb through past literature to be certain.
Ph.D. student in the Kocot Lab
University of Alabama
Latitude : -63 21. 5941 Longitude : -53 24.2078
Has anyone else heard this time and time again? It is very rare that we, as scientists (or people in general for that matter) get things exactly right the first time we try something. Whether it be an experiment, such as trying to get worms to glow on a ship (more on that later), or simply tying your shoes. When it comes to running experiments, we usually just say something along the lines of well you learned one way that it doesn’t work, now you just need to find one way that it does following Thomas Edison’s famous quote, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. This idea rings as true today as it did in the late 1800s. The scientific method is a process and requires research, several preliminary trials to test out our ideas, more research, a failed attempt (or 2), and sometimes just going back to the drawing board to redesign a whole project. These. Things. Happen. I am not saying that you can never do anything right the first time, just that it is not common. I used to think that everything needed to be perfect before I could even start an experiment, but when I was a brand new graduate student, my advisor at the time told me that I should just try what I had and see what needed to be fixed. Trial and error. It seems like a simple idea, but when you’re passionate about a subject, it can sometimes be a tough pill to swallow.
Since we have reached the ice on the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer, we have been collecting so many awesome invertebrates! I am still quite partial to the annelids, or segmented worms as can be seen in the photos here (look at the iridescent one :) ) and especially the ones that glow! When we were on deck going through a sample last week in the dark during wee hours of the morning, Damien said, “Candace look! I think this worm is glowing!”. Sure enough, it was! If it hadn’t been for the dark, I am not sure we ever would have seen them glow, but we did and hopefully sometime soon, I will be able to share nice photos or videos of them glowing or bioluminescent (but not yet… we are still in the trial and error stage – see red light photo of sample containers). Currently, I just like to go enjoy the bright flashes of yellow in the dark and freezing cold room on the ship that we call Big Antarctica. This room allows us to keep animals alive in an environment that they are accustomed to I have a few different methods to try to record the bioluminescence going forward, but until then I am remaining in the mindset of, “Hmm well that’s interesting… Maybe try this instead?”
Dr. Candace J. Grimes
Postdoctoral Researcher in the Halanych Lab
Latitude: 63˚ 24’ S Longitude: 53˚ 04’ W
Today, like many other days, the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer and the #icyinverts crew arrived on station—this time several hundred miles off the coast of James Ross Island—and collected animals from the Antarctic seafloor by trawl. While the many of us busied ourselves identifying and sorting latest exciting batch of critters, the ship’s crew prepared to deploy our CTD. The CTD (an acronym standing for “Conductivity, Temperature, Depth”) is an ingenious instrument, lowered off the side of the ship and used to measure physical properties of the water around it as it descends. In addition to measuring the properties in its name, it can be loaded with other sensors—for example, this CTD also measures chlorophyll concentration, important for knowing where plant-like phytoplankton are in the water. The CTD can even collect seawater from particular, pre-programmed depths in specially designed tubes (called Niskin bottles) that surround the sensor array. We typically deploy the CTD as a final procedure before we begin moving to a new sampling site. Even though the data the CTD collects is often very useful, both for the scientists on the ship and others back on shore, its deployment and retrieval is not usually cause for much fanfare, but yesterday’s CTD cast was a bit different…
That’s because yesterday, our CTD went down with a rather unusual payload attached to its frame. Bags and bags of Styrofoam cups! No, not for an exciting new experiment, but rather the last step in a long arts and crafts project familiar to many veterans of oceanographic cruises—CTD cups! It is a tradition on cruises like this one to decorate Styrofoam cups for friends and family back home then send them down on a particularly deep CTD cast. Yesterday’s CTD went down to a depth of 1,800 meters (or just over a mile) below the surface. At depths that great, the Styrofoam cups experience pressures hundreds of times greater than they do on the surface, causing the plastic foam to collapse on itself. The decorated cups shrink several times over in size and the designs on them become condensed—essentially like a shrinky-dink, but substituting pressure for heat! As we steamed away to our next site, we not only had new data to pore over, but numerous adorable tiny cups to admire and compare, with thoughts of sharing these mementos and the many memories of this trip with loved ones back on land rising to the surface amidst the excitement of our ongoing adventures.
Dr. James Townsend
Providence College/Marine Biological Laboratory
They Might Be Polar Giants
Latitude: -062 40.4665 Longitude: -049 58.6846
With a week of sampling under our belt, and now having seen some really cool marine invertebrates, one of the things that has been on my mind lately is just how large the critters can be! Animals living in the Arctic and Antarctic can have unusually large body sizes compared to those in warmer waters – this phenomenon is known as polar gigantism. A similar phenomenon, abyssal (deep-sea) gigantism, is when organisms are larger at depth than those closer to the surface.
There are several possible explanations for gigantism. For instance, invertebrate body sizes are limited by how much oxygen is available in the water – since more oxygen can be held in cold water, body size is able to increase. Metabolism also isn’t as fast in colder waters, so while size may ultimately be larger, the animals live longer and grow more slowly. Bigger body sizes can help guard against starvation, so it might be beneficial in that way. Both slow metabolism and resistance to starvation allows polar organisms to withstand periods without food due in low productivity waters. Another factor leading to bigger body sizes could be less predation. Not getting eaten means more time to grow! All of the above have probably been in play over the course of millions of years, evolving certain groups to get larger and larger because the benefits outweigh the risks.
In any case, we have seen a lot of big animals and I think we’ll be seeing a lot more. There are large amphipods, sea spiders, sea mice, sea stars, sponges, and leeches, to name a few! Every time our sampling equipment returns from the depths comes new excitement for what we might find. Sometimes it’s hard to resist not going out on the main deck during off-shift hours to get a first look every time we pull in a trawl or epibenthic sled – we can call this FOMO (Fear of Missing Octopuses) or FOMF (Fear of Missing Fauna).
I look forward to the next three-ish weeks of sampling and all the Icy Inverts left to see!
Collections Manager, Non-molluscan Invertebrates
North Carolina Museum of Natural History
Latitude: -63 29.121 Longitude: -52 58.645
It’s hard to truly encapsulate all the colors of an Antarctic sunset in a picture. During the early mornings when we start the night shift, members of the Icy Inverts team often take a sunrise and sunset break, about 2 and a half hours apart. I’ve never heard the phrase “pictures don’t do it justice” more times in my life, and it couldn’t be more true. Large strokes of orange reflect off absolutely still sheets of ice, illuminating both the sea and sky with the yellow hue of the frozen sunset, or is it sunrise?
As a PhD student in the Kocot lab, I’m here to assist with the collection of the many animals that live hidden not just below the surface of the Southern Ocean but also within the sediment at the bottom. After the large macrofauna have been sorted and taken inside the dry lab to be identified, the Kocot lab can be found just next door with seemingly uninteresting buckets of sediment and scraps of miscellaneous organisms. Our sediment and scraps, however, contain a vast world of animals from the suspension feeding entoprocts (a personal favorite), to the tusk shaped Scaphopoda, and the infamously cryptic Aplacophora. Members of our team look for both animals within the sediment and even animals living on other, larger animals!
My interests in the biodiversity of this hidden world are twofold, I wish to both discover new species within the ever-changing Antarctic seas but also understand how these and others are related. While the biggest sea creatures and largest bottom dwellers are important to understanding how life has evolved on Earth, so are the small, hidden, animals almost invisible to the naked eye. Some of the world’s most charismatic and noteworthy creatures are closely related to those living in the invisible world between grains of sand. The next time you are at your favorite beach or perhaps have a sample of Antarctic sediment take a closer look. As we say in the Kocot lab, sometimes you have to… sweat the small stuff.
University of Alabama
Today (18 November) marks the first Polar Pride – a celebration of the contribution of LGBTQ+ people to polar science. 18 November is the international day of LGBTQ+ people in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and Polar Pride was organized by Huw Griffiths and others and has grown into an international phenomenon with polar scientists celebrating today all over the globe (see the social media hashtag #polarpride). The Icy Inverts team includes several LGBTQ individuals and we, surrounded by our amazing allies, got together for a photo on the helicopter deck to celebrate this dimension of diversity in STEM.
The Icy Inverts team has reached Antarctica and we have seen some incredibly beautiful sights. Yesterday we saw incredible mountains, icebergs, penguins and seals (photo). This morning I watched sunrise... beginning at 2:30 AM. The last six days have been *intense* with sampling. The ship operates around the clock with two research teams alternating 12-hour shifts each day. My team relies on an instrument called an epibenthic sled to collect small animals living on top of or in the top couple centimeters of sediment on the sea floor. The net comes up looking like it is full of mud, but when we wash this material through mesh sieves, it reveals the small molluscs, worms, crustaceans, and other organisms living in this habitat (photos). We spend most of our time sorting this catch under a microscope using special cooling stages with ice water pumped through them to keep or animals at the near-freezing temperatures they are used to. We can spend hours on the deck of the ship sieving mud from a sample and then many more hours sitting at the microscope (on a rocking ship that is breaking ice!) sorting specimens.
It's been really fun for me to be back in Antarctica but especially because this time I am the leader of a team rather than a student. I've gotten so much enjoyment out of watching my students see their first giant sea spider and add new phyla to their life list (the invertebrate zoologist's equivalent to a birder's species list). I'm fortunate to have a fantastic team who have bent over backwards to help ensure the success of this expedition not only for their own research interests but to help others in their research objectives as well.
Presently, we are steaming east in the Weddell Sea to sample along the continental slope for deep-water organisms. This will be a different fauna then we have seen so far (and I am very excited). After that, we hope to head south, deeper into the Weddell Sea to collect specimens for the Halanych and Mahon population genetics projects. Hopefully the sea ice cooperates.
University of Alabama
What’s for dinner? How about detritus?
Latitude: -063 46.154 Longitude: -057 49.085
The question “what’s for dinner?” happens to be one of the least favorite question for my wife and I to answer. As we are both scientists, we would prefer to talk about the electrons that come from our food but planning out meals and getting groceries are a much less exciting. Thankfully, my research focus on this cruise is more about electrons and metabolism as it will look at what the microbial community in the sediments are having for “dinner.”
My work in Antarctica started with a collaboration between Andrew Mahon and Ken Halanych a few years ago. Together, we pushed two papers that examined the bacteria, archaea, and meiofaunal diversity of Antarctic benthic sediments from the Ross Sea all the way to the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Both studies shared a finding: the diversity within these sediment communities were heavily influenced by the quantity and quality of organic matter. The microbial community data implicated both heterotrophs and lithotrophs in these sediments. This is also currently being invested, as our group is actively analyzing metagenomic data to investigate lithotrophic metabolism. The samples from the Ross, Amundsen, and Bellingshausen Sea have a diverse array of lithotrophic metabolism as the metagenomic data contains genes that would support hydrogen, nitrogen (both ammonium and nitrite) and sulfur oxidation.
The goal for this work is to examine the detritus degrading community in sediments from the north side of the Antarctic Pennisula and the Weddell Sea. Our past work documented more organic matter at sites in the Antarctic Peninsula, with possible sources being phytoplankton. This cruise will allow us to collect new samples from areas we expect to have relatively high and low concentrations of organic matter. These will then be investigated with metagenomics and extracellular enzyme assay to determine the genetics that are driving organic matter degradation in these benthic sediments.
Dr. Deric Learman
Central Michigan University