9) nzTABS Expedition: Terrestrial Antarctic “megafauna”

Back in the helicopter, and back into the mountains for another soil sampling siege – I’m just about convinced that I am James Bond. Antarctica New Zealand has provided some impressive helicopter logistics, orchestrated by Barry, the operations scheduler at Scott Base to get us to all the 75 sampling sites. It has been most appreciated.

View from the help - Wilson Piedmont Glacier draining inland into Lake Vida

View from the helo – Wilson Piedmont Glacier draining inland into Lake Vida

This time, it was team Blond, not team Bond. And Kristi and I were specifically on an Invertebrate hunt, as we hiked back to base camp over two days.

Kristi, myself and Alia in the base camp tent.

Kristi, myself and Alia in the base camp tent.

Kristi Bennet is a Masters student from the University of Waikato studying population genetics of springtails in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Springtails are the largest living terrestrial organism in Antarctica, measuring in at a whooping 1-3mm. The only other visible living invertebrates are Mites. These are the ‘lions and tigers’ of Antarctica, top of the food chain – the megafauna! Springtails are found worldwide and are the words most abundant soil arthropod. They have a long evolutionary history and are one of the first arthropods that show up in the fossil record. There are 3 species found in the Dry Valleys, Antarcticinella monoculata, Neocryptopygus nivicolus and Gompheocephalous hodgsoni. During this expedition Antarcticinella monoculata was found, for the first time since the 1960s. The current hypothesis for their distribution is that they are remnants from Gondwanaland and have survived the once warmer continent becoming a polar ice cap.

Kristi Bennet - Masters student researching Antarctic springtails

Kristi Bennet – Masters student researching Antarctic springtails

Hunting for Springtails and Mites is a fine art. They have very particular places they like to hang out. They are found on the mountain peaks, in areas with some water, where snow naturally accumulates. They like to live under flat black rocks, sheltered from the harsh winds by larger boulders, on north facing slopes, with good school zoning and close to the shops…. For us, it means spending lots of time on our hands and knees turning over rocks. So I am a glaciologist by trade, and until this point the field groups had had very little luck in finding any mites or springtails. It was when I finally turned over a rock to see tiny red mites scuttling across the underside of the rock, that I truly understood the microbiologists passion and yelled at Kristi “oh oh oh, Ive found some mites!!!”. 

Next we had to collect the mites. A specially designed aspirator was used. They are sucked up through a tube, and to prevent eating them, they are caught on a filter and fall into a plastic vile. Mites and springtails are also found in the soil samples. To separate them form the soil, in the lab the soil is mixed with a sugar solution and any organic matter, including the mites and springtails floats out. They are then scooped out, preserved in ethanol and taken back to New Zealand for genetic analysis.

Alia and Kristi working with samples in the field lab at base camp

Alia and Kristi working with samples in the field lab at base camp

By the end of the field time, the total count of springtails found was approximately 100, and 300 mites were also collected. Needless to say, Kristi was pretty happy with the count, and will be spending time in the lab, studying the genetics of these springtails.


5) nzTABS EXPEDITION: Victoria Valley Base Camp

Full steam ahead! Tents up, camp kitchen assembled, field laboratory unpacked and assembled!  From here our primary goal is to trek to the 75 chosen GPS sites, take soil samples, look for invertebrates and survey a vegetation transect. From here the samples need to return to the main camp where a field laboratory has been set up, for initial tests before being package up at returned to the lab in New Zealand.

Josh whipping up a storm in the outside kitchen

Josh whipping up a storm in the outside kitchen

Today Glen and Kurt, have been on a mission to figure out a complex plan for the most efficient way to get 16 people to 75 random sampling locations in a valley with an area of around 300km2! Tricky task! In order to physically get to all the 75 sampling sites, 3 sub camps have been set up, our homes away from home, the main camp. 75 sites, 16 people and two weeks.

Not a bad place to call home for the moment

Not a bad place to call home for the moment

Glen Stitchbury, a Geographic Information Systems specialist from the University of Waikato has used a number of satellite images to figure out where we need to go. By combining information such as elevation, slope, surface temperature, geomorphology and slope aspect, the entire valley has been divided into 1241 different polygons or tiles. Based on the previous years sampling a computer model has been created to predict the biological taxa that should be found within each tile. Luckily we DO NOT have to sample all 1241 tiles. Instead 75 random tiles have been chosen.

Kurt Joy, a phD candidate at Gateway Antarctica, University of Canterbury is an expert on glacial geomorphology. While Antarctica itself is alien enough to most, the Dry Valleys are a rare oddity in a continent predominantly covered in ice. What is most amazing is standing outside listening while Kurt gives me the “in a nutshell” geological history of this valley, is that there is nothing to hide the history. There are no trees to obscure the landscape, in fact hopefully we will get to see the ‘forests’ of Antarctica in a few days, in the form of tiny mosses, lichens and cynobacteria. We see chocolate brown layers of Ferrar Dolerite injected into the creamy Beacon Sandstone, we see a present day glacier terminating up the valley as if carved off perfectly by a giant cake icing knife. Lake Vida used to be 200m deeper at the Last Glacial Maximum 15,000 years ago. It has left terraces perched high on the valley sides, and ancient glaciers have left lateral moraines even higher up the valley sides. This valley is the closest analogy to Mars. Ventifacts – wind sculpted silky black dolerite, frost heave polygons and desert pavements with the wind winnowing out the finer sediments.

Me in Geological Heaven!Beautiful Dolerite ventifact perched on a granite slab.

Me in Geological Heaven!
Beautiful Dolerite ventifact perched on a granite slab.

Frost heave produced polygons - you really have to be there to understand - sorry.

Frost heave polygons – you really have to be there to understand – sorry.

Between Glen and Kurt, the two of them have spent the afternoon pouring over the maps, masterminding ways to optimize sampling routes, helicopter drop offs, and who will be located at each subcamp. Snippets of conversation escape from back of the tent amongst the piles of maps,

“Ok that’s an easy one, 12km return”

“Ohhh, that ones a destroyer, look at that profile, bet the view is worth all the pain though”…..

Pouring over the map - "I rekon we go THIS way"

Pouring over the map – “I rekon we go THIS way”

1) nzTABS EXPEDITION: Terrestrial Antarctic Biocomplexity Survey

When Scott of the Antarctic ventured into the otherworldly Dry Valleys in 1903, he famously dubbed them “Valleys of the Dead”. Over 100 years later, modern science is proving Scott wrong, showing a surprising abundance and diversity of microbial life.

The almost mythical McMurdo Dry Valleys

The almost mythical McMurdo Dry Valleys

I am joining a group of scientists lead by Professor Craig Cary from the University of Waikato as part of the New Zealand Terrestrial Antarctic Biocomplexity Survey (nzTABS). We are heading to the Victoria Valley, which is a northern valley in the Southern Victoria Land, Dry Valleys for three weeks of field research. I am a freelance science communicator with a background in Antarctic glaciology and geomorphology. I am really looking forward to joining this group of primarily biologists in the wilds of Antarctica, and learning a thing or two about LIFE.

The Crew at Base Camp: Multidisciplinary and International

The Crew at Victoria Valley Base Camp: Multidisciplinary and International

The nzTABS mission is focusing on examining the biocomplexity of terrestrial ecosystems living in the extreme environments of the Ross Dependency, Antarctica, and building a model to link biodiversity with landscape, and environmental factors.  Antarctic terrestrial research is currently going through major changes. Original understanding of these extreme environments is that they are poor in nutrients with small and simple biology, which are ancient and slow growing. New modern research techniques are finding a different story!  There are biological systems supposedly thousands of years old, now carbon dated to less than 100 years, and soils once thought lifeless are found to be supporting microbial life at levels approaching those of temperate areas.

The project’s first major field season was in the summer of 2008/09, when a team of 18 scientists completed one of the largest soil sampling surveys in Antarctica, in the Miers, Marshall and Garwood Valleys which are the southern most dry Valleys. The sampling area covered 200km2, from sea level to 1200m, including steep sided valleys covered in gravel, sand, boulders with glaciers, melt streams and lakes. Additional scientific projects were undertaken, improving the understanding of the landscape, climate and how organisms respond to environmental changes.

Beauty in harshness: A granite boulder almost paper thin from sand blasted weathering.

Beauty in harshness: A granite boulder almost paper thin from sand blasted weathering.

The last four seasons has seen a continuation of sampling in the Dry Valleys and the creation of a model predicting the diversity and abundance of life that is found in different environments. This season we are continuing to sample in order to validate the model.

I’m excited to be with such a diverse group of scientists from around the world, and from many areas of study, including biologists, geochemists, geomorphologists, climatologists and GIS specialists. We will meet them all and hear about their role to play in this multi year, multi discipline project.