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
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
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
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
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