My name is Carmen Cobo, and I am from Santiago de Compostela, a city in the northwest of Spain. I live in Tuscaloosa (Alabama), where I work as postdoctoral researcher in the Kocot Lab at the University of Alabama. Being part of this lab has brought me many great opportunities, but being here today, on a research vessel in Antarctica is more than that, is a dream that came true.
As my colleagues Franzi and Emily, I study solenogasters (aplacophoran molluscs). In their posts a few days ago, they both talked about how interesting these worm-shaped molluscs are and how difficult their study is, mainly because they are generally just few millimeters in size. This also represents a challenge when it comes to finding them in the samples. During this cruise, to find these and other small invertebrates, we have been using a dredge called Epibenthic Sledge (EBS). “Benthic” animals are those that live in the surface of the bottom sediment and the EBS is designed to collect the first layer of sediment (“epi”), and to clean it while it is being transported up from the deep-sea to the surface. Thus, the use of this gear makes easier for us to collect and find all the small animals. So far, and just in three days of work, we have found more than 100 small solenogasters!
The EBS that we are using here is smaller than the ones I used before in other expeditions, but this is proving to be a real advantage, as we can sort all the material on board, and study and photograph the solenogasters alive. I am really enjoying this, as I am used to study them based on preserved material of museums, which is not so exciting. Moreover, studying alive solenogasters is giving us the opportunity to observe and even discover many interesting things about the natural history of these relatively unknown group of molluscs.
But we are not only finding small solenogasters. As with many other groups of animals, in the Antarctic, some solenogasters can be really big. With these big animals we will be able to conduct different genetic studies, and to try improving new techniques to analyze their morphology; both difficult sometimes with small specimens.
The scientific part of this expedition is being exciting and prolific, but if I am totally honest, the fact that through the window of the lab what we can see icebergs, the noise of the R/V Nathanael B Palmer breaking the ice, the color of the sea… those are the memories that I am sure I will keep forever. I am totally overwhelmed with the beauty of the Antarctic.
I cannot finish this post without mentioning one of the most thrilling moments so far: our first group of penguins on an iceberg. Many of us had been days waiting to see our first penguin, begging people to wake us up if they were seeing them, and being alert all day to run to the bow. The joy when that finally happened is difficult to describe.
M Carmen Cobo
Hello from the southernmost continent! After a long wait until boarding the Research Vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer, plus a long transit from New Zealand to Antarctica, the science finally has begun!!
Here we breathe science 24/7 and I have totally lost track of the days, I even don’t know what time is. The only thing that I keep track right now is: has the Megacore arrived yet?
The work is intense and muddy, and organization is key to make things happen. The idea is whenever the Megacore arrives on the deck we have everything in hand and… Let the slicing begin!!! We process the cores (usually around 10 cm depth), we finish, we clean, and we organize everything to be ready for the next station (hoping for a long transit!)
The muddy work is done, so it is time to see under the scope and check for the life in between the grains (my favorite part!). I am always amazed once I have my eyes on the scope and start to see the little creatures moving around. It is incredible to think that the bottom of the oceans, which many people might think to be lifeless, are home to many extraordinary creatures, including the AMAZING nematodes.
Well, this is life in Antarctica so far: muddy, salty, but very joyful!! I am truly happy to have the opportunity to come here and do my science!!
Anyway, end of a busy day!! Work is done and now I will enjoy a good rest after washing off all the mud (because I am always either salty, or covered in mud, or both!)
University of Georgia
My name is Franziska Bergmeier and I am a postdoctoral researcher from the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, Germany. Since my Master’s degree I’ve been studying this group of wonderful critters that most people have never heard of: Solenogastres! They belong to the phylum Mollusca and are related to well-known animals like cephalopods, mussels, snails and slugs. Solenogastres are weird looking molluscs: They are worm-shaped and instead of bearing a shell, they are covered in fine aragonitic scales or needles, giving them a shiny or fuzzy appearance. Most Solenogastres are small and only a few millimetres in size, but a handful of species can grow up to more than 10 cm in size! Even though we can find them in all the world’s oceans, from the tropics to poles and the shallow water to the deep sea, only a little over 300 species have been formally described by researchers over the last 150 years. Finding Solenogastres isn’t that difficult (if you know where to look and have the proper sampling gear), but identifying all the different species of Solenogastres sure is: We need to study the scales and needles covering the body surface and also look at their internal anatomy to differentiate between species (we do this by embedding the animals in plastic, cutting them into very thin slices, and then looking at them under the microscope).
There is so much we do not know about these animals and together with my colleagues from the Kocot Lab at the University of Alabama we are trying to shed more light on some of these unanswered questions. For example, we are trying to uncover the relationships among the different solenogaster species by comparing specific parts of their DNA, so we can begin to understand how these animals evolved. More than a third of all Solenogaster species are found in the waters surrounding Antarctica and being able to search for these animals here is very exciting. I have spent the last days sorting through a lot of Antarctic sediment, trying to find as many Solenogastres as possible – and we have been very successful so far!
If I am not sitting in front of my microscope hunting for Solenogastres, I will be outside on deck enjoying the beauty and strangeness of this place that surrounds us. Seeing Antarctica has been a childhood dream of mine, and to actually have the opportunity to be here makes me feel like one of the luckiest persons alive!
April 6th, 2023
Hello! My name is Sammie Schreiter, and I am a participant on the NBP 23-03 cruise to Eastern Antarctica. The transit here has been great and novel for me. We got to clearly see constellations of stars and the southern lights! Never in my life have I ever thought I would see the northern lights, let alone the southern lights. We’ve also been seeing ice bergs and nothing could have prepared me for how blue they are. One of the primary investigators on this cruise, Sarah Gerken, told me that the reason why ice bergs are so blue is because the frozen water is so pure and the bubbles are squeezed out. Similar to why the sky and ocean are blue, the light that reflects back out from the bergs is also blue. It actually doesn’t feel as cold as I thought it would be, but that is probably because we get so bundled up so it can feel comfortable outside.
As of today, we have been to five stations collecting lots of important information about the environment at the bottom of the Southern Ocean. One tool in particular we use to collect invertebrates is called the Blake Trawl. We’ve seen an array of marine invertebrates including sea pigs, sea stars, brittle stars, marine worms, and sea cucumbers, sponges, and many more! One group that I’m interested in is sea urchins (also known as echinoderms).
My master’s thesis research is about the genetics behind sea urchin embryo development. More specifically, I study what genes are turned on or off that allows a sea urchin embryo to grow. Even though I study a species found in the Atlantic Ocean called Lytechinus variegatus, I still am so mesmerized by the sea urchins I’ve seen here in the Southern Ocean. The starkest difference I’ve seen is the shape of the urchins. Lytechinus variegatus are circular, whereas many species here are closer to almond-shaped, like Pourtalesia hispida! I’m unsure of why they are shaped like that here, but I would love to know more about the genes involved in body morphology of these sea urchins and how that is different from Lytechinus variegatus. But one species, Sterechinus antarcticus, is also really cool because they are the same color as strawberry cake! I’ve never seen such a pink urchin before and that might be the best invertebrate I’ve seen.
University of North Carolina Wilmington
Sweat the small stuff is the unofficial moto of the Kocot lab. While some other labs on the ship focus on easier to see larger invertebrates like sea stars and sea pigs, the Kocot lab choses to focus on animals that are best observed using a microscope. These small animals we have chosen to study bring with them challenges to studying them. The Kocot lab, particularly Kevin Kocot himself, has reveled in this challenge, creating new and interesting ways to circumvent these challenges.
On the NBP, one often used piece of equipment is the sieving table. This comes into use whenever the Blake trawl, a device with a net used to collect our ocean bottom dwelling critters, comes up with a glob of mud. The sieving table is made up of a series sieves, which act as flat strainers with different sized holes. These sieves act as a tool to help hold animals and allow the muddy water to escape through the holes when rinsed, revealing the animals hidden within the mud. The issue here is that this sieving table, for the most part, works best for the larger animals, leaving the smaller animals to be rinsed through. The solution created was a design which the lab calls the “mud bong,” named for its shape which resembles a beer bong. Though this isn’t used for consuming beverages faster, it does have a similar mechanism of moving large quantities of liquid to one location. The original mud bong used in the NBP 20-10 cruise two years ago, caught the muddy water after being washed through the sieve table using a tarp attached to a tube, leading towards fine meshed sieves, which are fine enough to catch the animals our lab is interested in. The difference between these fine mesh sieves and the sieves used on the sieving table is the size of the holes which the water can run through. The fine mesh sieve which is used in our lab are designed to catch much smaller animals, but still let the mud and sediment wash away. The mud bong itself used in this cruise has been improved on thanks to the MLTs (Marine Lab Technicians), especially Hila, who put a built-in wooden structure on the bottom of the sieve table and attached it to a much longer tube than the original design. April 3rd was the first day it was officially put into use when the day’s trawl came up far muddier than was originally hoped for. As soon as the trawl came up, a few of us hustled to move the sieving table out into an area where it could be accessed. Since the main portion of the mud bong was built onto the structure itself, all that had to be done was attach the tube leading to the fine mesh sieves. The original version of the mud bong had too short of a tube, which required the individual manning the mud bong to sit next to the sieving table. This caused some difficulty as the rest of the science crew on shift tends to gather around the table to help sort animals and the individual manning the mud bong was right where other scientists needed to stand. For the mud bong 2.0, the tubing is now much longer. So long in fact, that in order to avoid twists and kinks in the tubing, this person manning the mud bong (me) ended up sitting on the far side of the deck from the rest of the sieving action. It was a bit odd in a way, on one side of the deck was much action and screams of delight over the sight of various animals becoming unveiled as the mud slowly rinsed away. Whereas I was on the other end of the deck, with a nice view of the moon, sieving the muddy water coming out of the tube in front of me excited for the tiny organisms I was picking up. Overall, it worked like a dream, and I’m excited to use it again the next time the trawl comes up with glorious deep-sea mud.
Once our animals are in the lab, animals are sorted under microscopes. This is when the real fun begins. We often don’t know what animals have been obtained until we get it all under a microscope. We usually put half a spoonful of sieved material, which to the naked eye looks like muddy particulate matter on a dish, adding extra sea water. It doesn’t look like much at this point but put it under a microscope and a whole other world opens. All sorts of adorable animals emerge. It’s really exciting sampling in an area that hasn’t been sampled much in the past because many of these animals are completely new to science. Every day I have been seeing species that I have never seen before.
A bit about me: I’m a PhD candidate in the Kocot lab. I study Solenogastres, a group of worm shaped molluscs. I fell in love with these little guys when I was working in the Rouse lab in San Diego studying feather stars. I came upon some of these molluscs when doing fieldwork off the coast of California. Solenogasters are very understudied and much of what I do is create a foundation to make it easier for people to study them going forward. I grew up in Custer, Washington and now live with my partner, M’Kayla, our two cats, Mochi and Toasty, and my corn snake, Scarlett in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
April 2, 2023
After a long transit from New Zealand, we finally made it to Antarctica!!! For the next month we will be cruising through Eastern Antarctica studying the nematodes that live here.
Today we will begin deploying a tool – dubbed the mega corer – to collect sediments from the ocean floor. We are interested in the tiny, microscopic worms, known as nematodes, that live there. What makes these worms even more interesting are the numerous bacteria that live on their cuticle. Collectively, the bacteria that encapsulate the worms are known as the microbiome. Some nematodes have developed a symbiotic relationship with bacteria that allow them to survive.
In marine systems, other nematodes, such as the stilbonematids, rely on their bacteria to detoxify their environment allowing them to survive in these harsh conditions. Others, such as the Astomonema, have become so reliant on bacteria that they haven’t developed a conventional gut and mouth! Instead, bacteria live in a rudimentary gut system and provide the worm with the necessary energy and nutrition to survive.
Antarctic worms are no different! These worms might harbor a unique microbiome that have helped them adapt to this environment. Using DNA sequencing, we will further understand how nematodes interact with their microbiome.
Alejandro De Santiago
University of Georgia
So, here’s the deal.
A team of scientists (me included) have set out on a research cruise upon the R/V Icebreaker Nathanial B. Palmer to find a whole bunch of Antarctic critters, from sea stars and nematodes to sea pigs (a type of sea cucumber) and bryozoans. However, the ones I am interested in are the annelids.
I am Harrison Mancke, a first-year graduate student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington under Dr. Kenneth Halanych. I am interested in the eyes and genes of marine annelids.
Annelida Lamarck, 1802 comprises a diverse phylum of segmented worms with more than 15,000 described species. These worms occupy a wide array of ecological niches with a spread of activity (motile to sessile), feeding strategies (e.g. herbivory, detritivory, predation, parasitism, and microphagy), and habitat (marine, freshwater, and terrestrial). They have shown to comprise as much as 70% of macrofaunal benthic diversity. Basically, worms have a lot going on, and sometimes these things that they do to live and survive require them to be able to see.
How does vision come about? Essentially, there’s an advantageous mutation in an organism’s genetic code. This translates to morphological changes, which then influences behavior, which finally contributes (or negates) fitness. It’s a feedback loop of sorts. Some worms have eyes and I want to know why. Not only why, but how long ago in their evolutionary history these eyes developed and how they use them today. The question at the center of all this s a simple one: what do worms see? Especially in such an extreme environment such as Antarctica. I have yet to be able to answer that question.
As of now, we have just hit ice and will begin sampling later today. A few nights ago we saw the southern lights! It was spectacular, I could see the faint edge of the milky way…It’s something I never expected to experience. Not only do I get to see incredible beauty, I get to participate in some incredible science!
Doctorate student at University of North Carolina Wilmington
Hello from the Southern Ocean!
It brings me great excitement to be able to say we’ve made it down here after a month of being away from home. The temperatures have already gone below five degrees Celsius and I had to start wearing the big wool socks. While I thought that we would have been deep into sampling by the time I got to post to the blog, we are still on our way. But science is just around the corner.
To formally introduce myself, my name is Jake Perez and I am a third year geology PhD student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. While my most recent field work has been in much warmer climates (see picture 1), I have come this far south to study the microbes that live in the sediments off Antarctica. To be specific, I want to know how these microbes break down complex organic matter using extracellular enzymes. Extracellular enzymes are enzymes that are secreted outside of the cell that help break down carbon into smaller forms to allow the microbe to then break down directly. Think of it like a microbe needing to cut up a big steak with a knife before it can chew it. I’ll study how they do this by adding different types of “food” to the sediment and seeing what happens to it as microbes degrade it over time.
But for now, we just wait until some sediment cores come up! In the meantime, I have been spending time outside saying goodbye to New Zealand (picture 2), seeing what different animals I can see from the boat (picture 3 – it’s mainly birds) and watching a lot of downloaded shows/movies. Last night, a lot of us got to see polar lights! Getting good pictures while on a rocking boat is not easy (picture 4) but luckily, I have some experience when I saw the northern lights in the Arctic last year. I will say, it’s hard to beat the lights we saw last night and hopefully we will see more when we get to the ice!
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Most of the personnel on this trip refer to it as a cruise or an expedition, I think that I prefer the term adventure. My name is Conor Judge, I am an undergraduate at Central Michigan University and I am here to assist Dr. Mahon and his lab in their sampling. Though we just hit the one month point on this adventure, it has already been an amazingly informational experience. This is especially because all of this is brand new to me! So far I have flown for the first time, visited my first foreign country, and even seen the ocean for the first time. I have also been getting a crash course in marine invertebrates, which is an entirely new field for me.
All of these new experiences just bring an extra level of excitement, and it grows every day we get closer to Antarctica and our first site. Now that we are just a few days away, it is easy to tell that everyone is just as, if not more excited than I am. Until then, we will enjoy the movies, card games, and of course the corn hole tournament! Today, we finished two more matches and secured the semifinal round of the tournament. The remaining teams are the Orderly’s of Dr. Jumbles (Nick and Damien), the Crustacean Crushers (Matt and Sarah), the Ice Chips (Jess and I) and Coral & Ken. The champions will be crowned on April 1st!
I also would like to say that I am extremely grateful to Dr. Mahon for giving me this opportunity. It is not every day that you have to chance to witness some of the most remote and interesting places on Earth while helping with important research. It is also an awesome opportunity to be surrounded by so many distinguished scientists, and I will be sure to make the most out of learning from their experiences. This is an experience of a lifetime, and I hope to make the best out of it!
EDIT: While writing this we saw the Southern Lights!
Central Michigan University
Today officially marks being away from home for a month, and what a month it’s been! It’s hard to believe that in just the past month I’ve been from North Carolina to New Zealand and I’m now aboard the Palmer on my way to Antarctica. We are less than a week away from pulling up Antarctic aliens from the sea floor and I can’t wait! I’m Kyle Donnelly, a second-year graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington working towards my Masters in Marine Science. This is my second trip down to Antarctica aboard the NBP, and now that I have an idea of what’s waiting for me down there I think I’m more excited this time than I was last time! One of the best aspects of going to Antarctica is the scenery and the animals which both make for some fantastic photography. We haven’t seen any ice yet but that hasn’t stopped me from getting some nice pictures out at sea here! A few days ago a pod of dolphins were hanging out alongside the boat and I was lucky enough to snap some photos of them, as well as some photos of the giant birds (albatrosses?) we frequently get to see flying around outside. The world outside the boat is great and makes for some interesting photos – but the world inside the boat is great as well. Another aspect I love about being aboard the Palmer is the community. It’s rare to get the opportunity to be closely surrounded by passionate individuals for such a long period of time, and getting to live with people of different backgrounds that are all united by a passion for science and Antarctica is easily one of the best things about life here. Between the scientists, technicians and crewmates, there’s a really great group of people here all working towards a successful trip down to Antarctica, and there’s rarely a dull moment on the ship. I’m really looking forward to getting down to the ice, taking some iceberg and penguin photos and starting field work out here! I’ve added some of the photos I’ve taken so far, and more will be coming in my next post!
University of North Carolina Wilmington