Over the course of the last month at sea, we’ve experienced hot “summer-like” weather of the equator followed by a steady drop in temperature towards the “winter-like” temperatures of Antarctica. Additionally we’ve traversed over four time zones, thoroughly messing up any sort of circadian rhythm or sense of time. This can be seen around the boat with fewer and fewer bodies in the mess hall during breakfast time and heard by the whisperings of “is that clock correct?”. Many of the science crew are practically counting down the days until the time at which we will be able to start processing samples. During which, the idea of time will be once again turned sideways, as the science crew will be split into two teams as we start 24 hour ops. One team will have a 1 am to 1 pm shift while the other will have a 1pm to 1am shift. All the while, since it is getting towards summer in the Southern Hemisphere, the darkness of night will become continually briefer. Thus night time vs day time will likely become an abstract concept.
Everyone on this ship has a list of taxa which they are most eager to see. While many of my friends back home asked about the excitement of seeing penguins, all the taxa which have been making the lists of the scientists on this ship are ones living below the ice.
One of the things I am looking forward to seeing are the crinoids, particularly a certain feather star endemic to the Southern ocean, Promachocrinus kerguelensis. Crinoids are in a group called Echinodermata, some other taxa in this group are sea stars and sea urchins. The common name for crinoids like P. kerguelensis, which don’t have stalks, are feather stars. The reason I’m interested in seeing this odd looking echinoderm is because this was a taxa I studied during my master’s research and I have yet to see one alive.
Secondly, I am excited to see examples of polar gigantism. Polar gigantism is the tendency for taxa in higher latitudes to be considerably larger than similar taxa found elsewhere. For example sea spiders (pycnogonids) are usually found no larger than 1 or 2 cm, but there is a common Antarctic sea spider that is the size of a dinner plate. Gigantism can be found in many different taxa and some others that we’ll likely see is gigantism in sea stars, isopods (like the rolly pollies one might find in their back yard), and the one I’m most excited about, Aplacophora.
Aplacophorans are mollusks, similar to clams, chitons, and snails, however aplacophorans don’t have a shell. Instead of a shell, they are covered in little spines, called sclerites and have a worm shaped body. These are usually very small, not usually longer than a few millimeters to a centimeter or so. There is an Antarctic aplacophoran which is has been likened to the size of a bagel. Some of you might be wondering why Aplacophora. As a master’s student, I was exposed to Aplacophora when looking through sediment for invertebrates while on the R/V Falkor two years ago. As I peered down the microscope at the treasures that had been picked up by the ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) earlier that day there was a very special organism that caught my eye. As it reared its head upwards to appear to be sensing its new surroundings, I caught sight of little papillae moving around which entranced me. It was love at first sight. It was the cutest organism that I had ever seen, which I quickly shared with any crew that were around at the time. Now as a first year PhD student, I have the privilege to focus on these little cuties.
Ph.D. student in the Kocot lab
The University of Alabama