Latitude 53 10.2100S Longitude 70 54.3983W (Punta Arenas, Chile)
In late December of 2012, I traveled to Chile to Board the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer and join my first Antarctic expedition. I was a Ph.D. student at Auburn University in Ken Halanych’s lab and joined him, his collaborator (and my former labmate in the Halanych Lab) Andy Mahon, and a team of researchers made up of their labs and collaborators. Fast forward about eight years later and now I’m a principal investigator (PI) myself and back aboard the ship with Ken, Andy, and our teams preparing to go to back to the Antarctic. This will be the fourth time for me, but I’m just as excited as I was the first time.
In two days, we leave Punta Arenas and begin the last leg of our journey to Antarctica. We boarded the Nathaniel B. Palmer over 40 days ago (see photo) and I think I speak for everyone in the science party when I say that we are ready to get to work! Since we got to Punta Arenas, the ship has been a hive of activity with scientific gear and supplies from the warehouse being onloaded, inventoried, divvied out, and stowed. In addition to preparing for the current cruise, the US Antarctic Program (USAP) Marine Technicians and Marine Laboratory Technicians are preparing for other cruises on the ship that will take place after ours. Each scientific cruise has different objectives and that can mean very different sets of equipment and supplies need to be provided. Because we are collecting specimens, we have a lot of sampling equipment, containers, ethanol, and formaldehyde. For example, my team has 320 liters(!) of ethanol for preserving samples alone.
Most of the supplies and equipment are on board the ship now, and yesterday I was reunited with some old friends: the epibenthic sled, the Blake trawl frames, and the sieving table. The epibenthic sled (aka epibenthic sledge or EBS; photo) is an instrument that is towed behind the ship to collect small animals living in the top centimeter or so of the sediment. It disturbs the top layer of the sediment with a chain and then the material that is stirred up is captured in what looks like a fine plankton net mounted inside the metal frame. The Blake trawl, which consists of a heavy metal frame (photo) and a net, is dragged along the sea bottom to collect larger animals living on top the sea floor. The sieving table (photo) consists of a series of stackable metal screens of decreasing mesh size that we can use to sieve mud brought up in trawls to reveal the animals within. My team will be using this equipment heavily during the cruise.
In the lab, we’ve been busy securing microscopes and other equipment to the bench (photo). Because the ship may rock in weather, everything must be tied down or otherwise secured, especially fragile and expensive equipment like our microscopes. What are we doing with so many microscopes? My team is here because of an NSF-funded grant supporting research on the taxonomy and systematics of an unusual group of worm-like molluscs called aplacophorans (photos). Aplacophorans don’t look much like more familiar molluscs such as snails or clams, but if you look at them under a microscope (photo), you can tell they are related because aplacophorans have scales or spines made of calcium carbonate, the same material other molluscs’ shells are composed of.
Worldwide, there are only a handful of experts actively working on this group and pretty much every time I sample where no expert has worked before, I find species that are new to science. Aplacophora is just one of dozens of groups of marine invertebrates with few or even no living experts studying them. So… Who cares? Taxonomy and systematics are fundamental disciplines in biology that provide information on the diversity of life on Earth, which is essential to the fields of conservation, ecology, and evolutionary biology. These fields offer the basis for all comparative studies, providing the names by which we call organisms, and a framework that explains their evolutionary relationships. Confronted with a vast number of undescribed species and high rates of extinction, we struggle with a lack of trained personnel and time to discover and characterize biodiversity. This work is especially important in Antarctica where climate change may lead to the extinction of many species, including some that will be lost forever before they were ever even known to science.
I’m working to help bring the study small marine invertebrates like aplacophorans into the 21st century while training students who will hopefully go on to be the next generation of invertebrate biologists. My team will be working in the lab to sort samples under the microscopes, document virtually every specimen with high-quality photos, and collect material for taxonomic and genomic research. Specimens will be deposited in the Alabama Museum of Natural History for use in my lab's research but also any other researchers that wish to borrow specimens. Stay tuned for pictures of all the cool animals we find!
Finally, I want to express how *incredibly* grateful we are to be able to conduct this work and give a huge shout-out to all the folks who made this possible. NSF, USAP, ECO, and The University of Alabama have gone above and beyond to make this research possible in the midst of a pandemic. Planning this kid of field work is always complicated and challenging and factors this year made things especially complicated. From the bottom of my heart, thank you to each and everyone of you.
Dr. Kevin Kocot
The University of Alabama