Thoughts on Leaving

Working today, in the laboratory, Kevinwhile working ing the labsmallI came to realize that my time here, in Antarctica, grows short. I have only been here a month; now I have two weeks before departing back to Birmingham, Alabama. The time passed in the blink of an eye. I'm sure the other graduate students will feel the same, when June rolls around.

I have learned and seen much in my time here. I have met, lived with, and conversed with some of the best and well-known scientists in the world. I have been one, of twenty or so scientists, privileged enough to be here. The experience resonates with me, making me feel a bit more accomplished and cognizant of my place in the world. This creates in one a feeling, a feeling that they are now included in something greater than the sum of its parts. As if, no matter what may come, I have been here and left my small mark on the culture of the station, the science conducted here, and the last great frontier of exploration.

Kevinmeet live conversesmallI never really imagined I would be here, here of all places and I of all people. I couldn't have written a better storyline for myself, from Washington, D.C., to Birmingham, to the bottom of the world. The world seems so much smaller to me now, having come so far. Distances seem shorter in the mind's eye once traversed. However, my reach seems longer. Traveling what, for me, was not a road less traveled but rather a road not paved has made a greater difference for me now, than ever before.

The influence you and I have on the life of our tiny blue world and its future seems exponentially greater, having been here and witnessing the grandeur that should exist everywhere. This planet was once, and can be again, a beautiful flawless jewel shinning on a dark satin canvas. Our world is unique in our solar system and perhaps the universe.

I feel I am leaving some of myself behind here; perhaps I am hoping to one day return and find it. Perhaps I may seek it out, a feeling of self-discovery, in other far-off corners of our Earth, again leaving mementos wherever I go. Nonetheless, the situation seems, were I to return, Antarctica would not be as I see it now. Would my adventure in this world of ice, stone, water, and salt become legend? The fact is, the way things are changing; the air will never be as clean as today, the sky and seas never as blue, and ambiance never as beautiful as now, today.

Kevinwhat is a whalesmallUnderstand the true rarity of the world we inhabit. Understand the abundance of life that also dwells on this world. You are part of that abundance. There is no part of the tree of life that is not connected to another, drawing support from or lending to another. As our world changes, we lose life, we lose diversity, and we find ourselves poorer for it. When a child asks, "What were whales?", what is your answer? Find the truth within yourself; this world is not just the responsibility of others. Be responsible for your part, if not for yourself then for those who'll come afterwards.

The opportunity to be here at Palmer has truly changed my world view. The goodwill and unilateral cooperation I have witnessed here was amazing. The idea of unilateral cooperation would've seemed ridiculous to me, sans my experience in the Antarctic. Here, where little civilization to no civilization exists, the citizens and scientists of many nations exemplify the true meaning of humanity.  By lend a helping hand to each other daily and continuously, they find strength and synergism in their concerted effort. The nations here in Antarctica are a shining example of how diplomatic relations should work worldwide.Kevinthe real planet earthsmall

If the international community focused their efforts and agendas towards the common good of and problems affecting all people, as here, this would be a much better world. There may be a chance to preserve and save our planet from mankind's appetite for an unsustainable lifestyle.

I feel honored to have my name amongst those who have seen, with their own eyes, the far-off and wild expanses still present, detached from the modern world. I will find it hard to return to that world. I find it hard to reconcile the differences between nature's beauty and mankind's civilization.

In truth, the wilds of nature seem to be much more civilized than any metropolis. The unsustainability and ridiculousness of modern society becomes crystal clear when one is transplanted into the real world; teleport yourself to the real planet Earth.


Contact us at Antarctica@uab.edu

In a Benthos, Far, Far Away

JulieinSpacesmallRecently I began watching the new Star Wars trilogy and there are many references to bacterial communities (metachlorian counts) in Jedis and Sith lords because they are the source of the ‘force’. This got me thinking… bacterial communities are incredibly common in the marine environment on rocks and algae, on animals, and in the water column. This is a really cool aspect of the marine environment that has become a popular area of research in marine ecology since quorum sensing was discovered. Quorum sensing is the name of a method of communication in bacterial communities where certain signaling molecules (peptides or sugars) coordinate decentralized communities in making ‘group decisions’.

A really good example of quorum sensing is found in a Hawaiian squid where high levels of bacteria in organs called photophores cause bioluminescence in the squid. In a sense, the high levels of bacteria in Anakin Skywalkers blood gave him the power to quorum sense with the universe. (Julie, imaged right with her light saber/dive light might also have high levels.)  Who knew George Lucas was into marine biology. Nerdy? Maybe, but it’s a great introduction to very complex environment that is the marine benthos and one of my experiments:


Episode #1: A New Hope

Microbial communities that develop on hard substrates are called biofilms. You may have heard of them because they are a problem in medicine when they form on catheters and other invasive medical technology. In the marine environment can they grow on everything (with few exceptions) and often facilitate settlement and growth of algal spores (seeds) or invertebrate larvae (early life stages). Biofilms can actually attract various baby marine organisms to settle in certain locations and the diverse array of bacteria species within the films can provide nutrients and CO2 or O2 for the organisms that have settled there, fostering the next generation in the marine community.In this Schoenrock version of Episode #1, the bacteria are basically fostering the new hope for the marine community. 

Episode #2: The Empire Strikes Back

DeliseaSmallSometimes algae or invertebrates can actually prevent settlement of bacterial communities that may otherwise hinder their health. Some examples are a red alga that is common in New Zealand, Delisea pulchra (and we find here – see my underwater image left), and a suite of sponge species from Antarctica. Delisea pulchra actually produces chemical compounds that prevent the bacterial communities from communicating, therefore inhibiting ‘swarming’ or establishment of biofilms on the alga. The sponges from Antarctica produce antibiotic chemistry which prevents growth of bacteria on the sponge. These two mechanisms of inhibiting bacteria community formation describe the chemical ecology of the community. Chemical ecology is the study of how organisms use chemical signals to communicate amongst community members or with the environment.

Episode #3: Return of the Jedi

A lot of the research that we are undertaking this year revolves around climate change and how it will impact the marine environment. This theme has been underscored in my UAB in Antarctica’s team mates’ posts and will continue as a common thread weaving these posts together. In previous years Team UAB in Antarctica, including me, has done a lot of research on the chemical ecology of the algae and invertebrates of the western Antarctic Peninsula. In addition to my ocean acidification experiments, I am working on an another experiment which attempts to determine whether certain species of coralline algae affect invertebrate larval settlement in Antarctica through chemical signaling of either the algae or the bacterial communities on their surface.  See another of my underwater pics right of baby brown algae (Demsarestia menziesii) settled on on the reddish coralline algae that settled as a baby and overgrew its small rock home surface.  limpets and baby algaesmall

In many marine communities coralline algae and the biofilms that specifically grow on them have been shown to affect invertebrate larval settlement. Some species attract coral larvae and there have been attempts to use algae extracts to restore dying reefs by creating a ‘flypaper’ for the larvae. My experiment attempts to determine whether community interactions that are common on coral reefs are also present in the Antarctic benthos. Last year, I anchored numerous small plexiglass squares- settlement plates as a marine ecologist would say- at various underwater sites to see what creatures algal and animal claimed them for home over the winter.

So far I have been to collect settlement plates from the shallow depths at my two sites. The invertebrate settlement is much more prolific than I expected based on my pilot experiments. Being a phycologist or algae specialist, it’s difficult for me to determine what the little dudes are without a lot of bookwork and consultation from other folks IMG 3297Smallhere who are into invertebrates and what the heck their baby stages might look like. I suspect many of the unrecognizable life forms might grow up to be solitary 'string bead' corals  or sponges like those I photographed shown left. 

Whatever the life form, animal or algal, I’m excited to see whether the force is strong in Antarctic benthic communities.  Stay tuned for my next episode coming.... 

In the meantime, may the force be with you.

Still seeking answers?  Send a hyperspace commo to  Antarctica@uab.edu









The Other Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Problem

With an increasing focus on a burgeoning list of extreme weather events, elevated temperatures, and rising sea levels, ocean acidification or JimJulieSettingUp OA“the other CO2 problem”, just doesn’t get its due respect. As a marine biologist I find this puzzling. After all, most everyone enjoys the fruits of the sea: mouth-watering shrimp, crabs, lobsters, clams, and oysters. And who doesn’t thrill in donning a snorkel and mask and finning themselves over a coral reef bristling with life. Yet all over the globe these treasures of palette and eye are under increasing chemical assault.    

Ocean acidification is the result of our seas absorbing about a third of the carbon dioxide that we release in to the atmosphere. Adding carbon dioxide to seawater adds hydrogen ions, and all you need to remember from high school chemistry is that more hydrogen ions translates into - more acidity. Just as acid slowly dissolves away a human tooth, so too can it dissolve a seashell. Another unfortunate outcome of adding carbon dioxide to seawater is that it challenges the ability of animals to make their shells.

Currently, building blocks for shells saturate the seawater.  But this is changing. By mid-century or even sooner these building blocks will be in short supply. Accordingly, shelled marine organisms will have to expend additional energy to repair and construct their shells, energy that might have better been used to grow or reproduce.


As you know from reading our blogs, Chuck, Maggie, Kate, Julie, and Kevin are now settled into Palmer Station and have been working around the clock to set up this field season’s ocean acidification (OA) - temperature experiments. The image above right is of PhD student Julie putting the finishing touches on the OA system.

Last year the experiments focused on evaluating impacts of ocean acidification and elevated temperature on species with calcium carbonate body components; crustose coralline algae and gastropods. This year the focus turns to key non-calcified players in the algal forests; fleshy macroalgae and amphipods. In the big picture, the project is important because when it comes to “first-impacts” of ocean acidification Antarctica is the “canary in the coal mine.” This is largely because the Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica is so cold. The colder the water, the more carbon dioxide absorbed and the greater the acidity. Accordingly, Antarctica has become the earth’s natural laboratory to first study ocean acidification. Limacina

Will Antarctic organisms be able to adapt to the rapidly changing ocean chemistry?

Just last year marine scientists working in the Southern Ocean discovered populations of pteropods, tiny planktonic snails with wafer-thin shells, already showing signs of wear and tear. Their outer shells are pitted and rough, signs of dissolving. As abundant as the stars in the sky shelled pteropods play a key role in the global cycling of carbon.

Will these swimming snails (shown right) and the cornucopia of marine organisms that carpet the sea floors of Antarctica survive? Should they not, we stand to lose the keys to potential cures to cancer, AIDS, cystic fibrosis, and other life-threatening diseases. Our UAB Antarctic chemical ecology and natural products program, in collaboration with marine chemist Bill Baker at the University of South Florida, has discovered chemical compounds from Antarctic marine algae and invertebrates with potent activity against the H1N1 flu virus and melanoma skin cancer. It would be a shame for an acid sea to dissolve away such opportunities.