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?