Amphipod Hunger Games

As Maggie and others have mentioned previously, one of the species I am working with this season is an Julie3Desmaromnivorous amphipod species, Gondogeneia antarctica (Gondo for short). Just as a quick reminder, these are the highly active and (if you ask me) charismatic microfauna that live on the big-branched brown algae (Desmarestia species) down here in large numbers.

By large numbers, I mean approximately 300,000 individuals per 1-meter square of algae, as one previous graduate student (Yusheng Huang) found out after many long months of counting. They are perfect candidates for my climate change experiment because even though they are small, there are lots of them and they can have a sizeable impact on community structure.  Trust me - there are a lot of amphipods on the brown alga imaged at right.

I am interested in measuring many aspects of the lives of the Gondo in my experiment, like how growth or behavior may be affected by the increased temperature or decreased pH. For now, let's consider these different temperature/pH treatment groups as Districts. I will have four Districts for my upcoming experiment. As Maggie previously mentioned, we are fortunate to have some fish biologists currently working at Palmer. There presence has opened up an interesting opportunity for me for me to play Gamemaker. Let me explain.

Julie3FishJill Zamzow, as a post-doctorate, came to Palmer station with our lab a few seasons ago and when the project focused on Antarctic chemical ecology. Jill studied some of the things that influence when and where Gondo chooses to hang out. She did a variety of studies, but the one that interests me the most is when she introduced "predator cues" and looked at the types of algae Gondo preferred to sit on. In this case the "predator cues" is water in which fish have been maintained. She found that the amphipods change the type of algae they hang out on depending on whether or not they think they might get eaten because there may be a fish nearby.

Here is where the fish biologists come in, they are going to let me take a little water out of the giant tanks that they hold their rock cod. I will set up an experiment to test if changes in temperature and pH influence how Gondo behavior. Specifically, I will track where they will hang out when they 'think' or chemically sense there is a fish around. Thank's to Jill's research I already have a good idea of what they might do. But the proof will be in the pudding or in in this case in fishy water as you can see above!

To do this, I have set up a mini-arena into which I put 16 Gondo. I have carefully weighed out equal masses of the bladed red alga , their preferred food, and the branched brown alga Desmarestia menziesii, their preferred home. I am essentially giving them the choice of escaping into the trees for safety or running to the cornucopia represented by a large section of one of their favorite foods. I will do this with regular seawater from the aquarium tanks and seawater that has held the Antarctic rock cod, so I have my "predator cue" similar to the ones Jill used.

I then sit back and see which alga they choose to hang out on after three hours. Lucky for my Gondo, they Julie3Arenaare not really fighting for their survival or supremacy over the other Districts and there is no one winner. In fact my Districts aren't competing at all, they are all winners as soon as they catch their algae.

For the last several days I have been setting up my Games in a pilot study to test out how well this experiment will work out. So far it is promising, I am looking forward to this part of my experiment. Besides, no matter what... the odds will ever be in the favor of Gondo.

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Better Living Through Fish Bones

The Laurence M. Gould sailed back into the Palmer Station world last week bearing gifts from the real world -MaggieLMGarr several hundreds of pounds of fresh produce! That night the meal buffet line featured a huge stainless steel bowl its interior gleaming green with crisp lettuce, brightened by offerings of crunchy sweet carrots and remarkably red and luscious tomatoes. A very welcome sight to savor, much less consume, after exhausting the last shipment of salad makings weeks ago. Sweet and succulent watermelon followed for dessert, what a treat!

Nature's treats continued the next morning with bananas, cantalope and honeydew melon. Small bunches of green grapes were happily snatched up at  lunch along with brilliant wedges of avocado. Subsequent meals have all included fresh alternatives to the usual canned and frozen vegetables and fruit and will continue as such until depleted and until next time when the ship returns from Chile (late April). Station routine is always disrupted when the ship is in 'in town' but delivering a bounty of 'freshies' puts a smile on all faces offsetting the minor change in pace.

The summer support staff no doubt experienced mixed emotions seeing the LMG materialize behind the iceberg dominating Arthur Harbor in final approach to dock. Twenty-some folks have bonded together as the Palmer family in the months since their arrival this past October. Most of the fresh faces lined up along the rails of the LMG were Palmer's summer family counterparts - the' winter-overs' - who will take over the many jobs that keep the station running. The winter-overs will be here until next October when they trade out with the incoming summer crew. This semi-annual Palmer cycle is bittersweet, bringing both joy and sadness when the seasonal family departs.

MaggieFishForkAmong those fresh faces aboard the Gould was a new science project with whom we will share the lab facilities. Three scientists, John Postlethwait and Thomas Desvigne based out of the University of Oregon and Bill Detrich from Northeastern University don't need much space themselves but they picked up close to 100 individuals on the sail south from Chile. As if the station weren't crowded enough! Well at least these new station residents will not render the dining room standing room only nor devour the precious freshies – they will however contribute to the population in the Aquarium Building. The large seawater aquaria are now up to their gills with those fish collected enroute.

Our project's specimen collecting is infinitely much less involved than that of the fish project's. We do our collecting with 2.5 miles of station, in shallow water using scuba gear and from the 15 foot inflatable zodiac that we pilot ourselves. The fish folks have traditional fishing grounds hours from here, in deep waters requiring steel cables and powerful winches to lower/raise nets and traps deployed to deep depths from the 230 foot LMG with Captain and crew of at least 20.

Additionally, getting our collections from project zodiac to the Aquarium Building involves just a few of us hand-carrying buckets to the Aquarium Building. Not the case for the fish – most of which are too big for a bucket not to mention too fragile to tolerate excessive handling. Fish, once brought up from their native watery home by the LMG winch are gently placed into large seawater tanks for transport back to station. After docking (even before people or freshies come off) the ship's crane operator tenderly lifts the 500 gallon tanks onto the pier. Station folks on the pier with tag lines skillfully guide the now airborn tanked fish to minimize swaying or jerking. Once softly set down, MaggieFishTankJohnthe tank (with a built-in pallet on the base) is carefully forklifted on one the station's four wheeled tractors over to the wooden deck walkway alongside the Biolab.

John (in photo at right with a fishy friend; photo taken in a previous season) and crew, along with many others then step up with a hand operated fork lift, wheeling the aquaria over  to the Aquarium Building. The fish are then transferred one by one to the station's large round aquaria both inside and outside the building. The process is repeated until as many as 6 fin-filled tanks are transferred from the LMG to the station. What an amazing ballet of strength, finesse and most of all well-orchestrated cooperation between the ship and station in support of science.

The majority of the fish captured are one of two relatively closely related species - Notothenia gibberifrons and Chaenocephalus aceratus. N. gibberifrons, gibbie, for short is a type of Antarctic rock cod. In a previous season I used a cousin of this fish in some of our experiments. The gibbies new on station are bashful and would not let me photograph them. In lieu, at left is an underwater image taken a few years ago by diving, MaggieNotothenidscientist Bill Baker of some kind of rock cod.

Chaenocephalus aceratus is a member of a really cool family of fish known as ice fish. Fish biologists usually capture the black-barred, rounded snout member of the family. John, Bill and Thomas were surprised to capture another ice fish not usually seen along the Antarctic Peninsula. This icefish is found in waters around South Georgia, a South Atlantic island hundreds of miles north of the Peninsula. The South Georgia is bigger than black-barred and has a pointier snout as the image right indicates. The scientists speculate that the increased numbers of the South Georgia icefish down in our neighborhood is yet another example of earth's changing climate.  They also speculate the presence of this bigger northerner may have a negative impact on the native black-barred icefish.
MaggieIcefish
Ice fish of any species are not only unique among fishes, but also among vertebrates in general worldwide,  in that they have no hemoglobin in their blood cells. It is the hemoglobin molecule that gives our blood the red color. Icefish lack hemoglobin so their blood is translucent.

Icefish also have a  skeleton is weakly hardened. The reason for that is complicated, but involves eons of living on the bottom and gentically losing a swim bladder.  It is the swim bladder that gives fish buoyancy, the ability to swim up in water column and/or just hang out at a certain depth above the bottom.  (You  probably know that sharks lack a swim bladder and similarly either swim or sink.)  In order to get up off the bottom, in search of food or a mate, icefish over time developed a lighter skeleton. By contrast, the rock cod skeleton develops and hardens in ways similar to that of humans. Palmer Station's freshly arrived fish scientists plan extensive experiments over the coming months to study the embryonic development of the both the icefish and the rock cod with hopes of elucidating the various genes that control skeleton formation. With genetic clues in hand, they ultimately hope to find what controls bone diseases in humans, particularly the diseases of osteopenia and osteoporosis. In the meantime, be sure to keep your bones strong and healthy by daily doses of calcium-rich dairy and freshies (kale, broccoli, collards (included in today's lunch!), etc). I'm off to get a snack yogurt....

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Old Palmer

M-C-A-IslandSummit-Norsel-CpMonacoBehind-smallercroppedAs I said in my last post, Sunday mornings are normally our "day off." We awoke to an unexpectedly calm and sunny day. Although like most of the scientists, our group is out in the field sampling many days, the station staff really only has Sundays (they get the whole day off) to enjoy the surroundings. So for them in particular, having a nice Sunday is a special treat.

Although I relish Sunday mornings as my one day to sleep in, today I only managed until about 7:00. Maggie and I both enjoyed the first part of the morning, her working on the NY Times crossword with friends and me checking the NCAA basketball highlights from last night. Maggie then worked up a water chemistry sample we do every morning (the ocean doesn't know it is our morning off).

I had told the boating coordinator that we wouldn't be using our boat to go diving until this afternoon, but about 9:30 Maggie and I realized that there were a lot of folks, particularly new folks who just arrived to staff the station for the winter, who had not gotten off station for recreation. Being altruists 8^) we decided that we really should take our dive boat out for a short recreational trip. Just for the others of course... Even though it was a beautiful morning we'd have preferred to be here working of course... (I'm lying through my teeth about that, of course...)

OldPalmerPartialAlthough we needed to be back by noon so as to have time for lunch and then to be ready for the group meeting at 1:00 that kicks off our Sunday afternoon work time, we put a note on the whiteboard in the dining room that we had eight places on our dive boat for a quick trip to Old Palmer. The spots on the boat filled up almost immediately, and by a little after 10:00 we were on our way.

Old Palmer ("Old P" for short) is a special place for Maggie and me for multiple reasons. It is called Old Palmer because it is the site of the original Palmer Station. That was built in 1965. The current station just celebrated its 45th birthday this past week, having been dedicated on 17 March 1968. Old P was built on an ice free peninsula of Anvers Island called Norsel Point. New Palmer is on another ice free peninsula of Anvers Island called Gamage Point.

Maggie wrote a post earlier in the season about the buildings at the current Palmer Station. The photo to the left is one she took many years ago of the original, "old" Palmer Station. In her and my early years here, it was maintained as an emergency refuge should something catastrophic happen to make the current station uninhabitable. Fortunately, that was never needed. The US Antarctic Program tries to have as small a "footprint" in Antarctica as possible, and for that reason eventually it was decided that Old P should be removed.

OldPfooters-fursealsAll that remains now of Old P are the concrete footings. You can see those in the photo to the right that I took this morning. You can also see a couple of the current inhabitants. It is perfect habitat for fur seals, and there lots of them there. The one sitting up in the photo is perched on one of the concrete footings.

One reason that Old P was originally seen as a possible refuge in an emergency situation is that it was possible to go over the glacier behind the two stations (formally called the Marr Ice Piedmont) all the way from new Palmer to Old P. Back in the day, there were even occasional special cross country ski expeditions that did go all the way between the stations.

One part of the reason for abandoning the idea of having Old P as a refuge was that the glacier became too heavily crevassed (cracked) to make the trip safe. Over recent years the glacier has retreated from the ocean at an accelerating rate, almost certainly due in part to climate change. As it retreated, people started to realize that Old Palmer might not be on Anvers Island at all. The connection on the glacier between Anvers Island and Old Palmer/Norsel Point was getting thinner and thinner. Eventually in 2005 the last remnant of the glacier there fell into the sea and revealed that Old Palmer and Norsel Point were not really on Anvers Island after all.

TheCut-smallerThe photo of Maggie and me at the top of the post was one we took a few years ago at the highest point of the "new" island that is the home to Old P (and always has been, although no one knew it for many years). Old Palmer would be below and behind the photographer. In the distance behind us at the tip of the island is Norsel Point. It is a very common dive site for our group in may seasons. Part of the experiment that Kate talked about on her last post has been deployed there since last year.

On our morning excursion, most of the rest of the folks who we went over to Old P with headed up to the high point where the photo of Maggie and me was taken. Maggie and I chose instead to go over to "the cut," which is what folks call the waterway that opened up in 2005 revealing that Old P and current Palmer are on separate islands.

In the image to the left I have combined two photos from this morning showing the cut. I was standing at its shore and have images looking both ways. In the one looking to the northwest you can see Maggie. In the lower one (taken from the same exact spot, just with me turned around), Palmer would be visible, about half a mile away, just to the left of the end of the cut if the view of it were not blocked by the glacier.

After our short hike we loaded ourselves back into our boat and headed home to the current station. Old P is a fun place to visit, but I'm glad that we have all the comforts and, particularly, the scientific resources provided by the current station. The fur seals sure do have a cool home though.

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