Feathered and Flippered Palmer Arrivals

Jim4ChinnieThe Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming regions of our planet. We know this in large part because daily air temperatures have been measured over the past sixty years just a few miles down the coast from Palmer Station at Vernadsky Station (currently a Ukrainian station and previously a British station called Faraday). These measurements indicate that average mid-winter air temperatures have climbed a degree centigrade per decade. Translate this in to the more commonly expressed Fahrenheit and this is a remarkable ten degree increase over just sixty years! This pace of warming is of similar magnitude to that seen in some of the fastest warming regions of the Arctic.

As the western Antarctic Peninsula has rapidly warmed there have been notable "range extensions" among various penguins and marine mammals. Our knowledge of Palmer's local penguin populations has been greatly aided by Dr. Bill Fraser and his team of "birders" who have documented the seasonal abundances of penguins on several small islands in the Palmer region over the past thirty-five years. While numbers of Adélie penguins have dramatically declined coincident with climate change (sadly I recently learned from Bill that in this study site there are now only about 10% of the original 15,000 breeding pairs remaining), two other species of brushtail penguin, the chinstrap and the gentoo, have arrived. Both of these species originate from warmer subantarctic environs and have moved south and established new breeding colonies. Chinstrap penguins arrived in the Palmer region in 1976 and there are now some 300 or so breeding pairs. Gentoo penguins arrived more recently, in 1992, but are even more common.

Today, there are over 1000 gentoo breeding pairs. I took part in a study several years ago with Bill Fraser and others that reported gentoo penguins had established a new breeding colony at Brown Bluff on the northeastern tip of the Peninsula. The key location of this colony suggested that gentoo penguins are poised to extend their distributional range down the eastern side of the Peninsula, just as they have on the warmer western Peninsula.

Jim4moaeleSouthern elephant seals have also "arrived" in the Palmer Station region. Despite the existence of a small namesake island in 1971 called Elephant Rocks that hosts a local breeding colony, elephant seals have figuratively been in the Palmer neighborhood for a blink of time. I suspect that Maggie, who has been visiting the station to conduct her research since the late 1970s, may remember when elephant seals were less common. Several years ago, I opened the front door of the BioLab and almost tripped over a large elephant seal at the base of the stairs, its pungent fish-like odor overpowering the icy air. Today, the guttural grunts and the sounds of flesh hitting flesh as males engage in battle echo off the retreating face of the nearby Marr Glacier. The Southern elephant seals breeding range may be designated "subantarctic" in field guides, but they have established a foot (or should I say flipper) hold near the station. Each summer, Elephant Rocks is strewn with pups and "weiners" (juvenile elephant seals) and attests to their successful colonization.

Of late, Antarctic fur seals (called "furries" by some of the locals) have similarly set up shop in the vicinity of Jim4FurPalmer Station. Also considered subantarctic, they are not as numerous as elephant seals, but they have established a presence and may yet establish breeding colonies in the region. It is pretty common to run into fur seals when visiting the small islands surrounding the station. On more than one occasion I have given an ornery bull male a wide berth when hiking on Amsler Island, a favorite haunt of fur seals.

So what is the upshot of these range extensions? In some cases the new arrivals seem relatively benign in terms of impacting the local ecology. However, others can pose problems. For example, fur seals have moved on to some of the local islands near Palmer Station that are strictly environmentally protected. Some scientists are concerned that the seals are killing sensitive mosses and lichens as they smother them by sprawling on the ground and scooting back and forth to the sea. Bill Fraser mentioned to me that on some local islands fur seals directly compete for space with nesting giant petrels.

Climate change is rapidly rewriting the book on the local penguin and seal fauna. I envision a not so distant future when the region surrounding Palmer Station, despite its true antarctic latitudinal address, will have become essentially subantarctic. The weather will be warmer and moister and the air more humid. There will no longer be any annual sea ice. Those species whose ecology is intimately tied to sea ice will be gone, most notably the Adélie penguin. Instead, gentoos, chinstraps, furries, and elephants, will rule the roost.

By-Catch

Every time we go diving to collect samples for our experiments (or food for the organisms we are maintaining in our experiments) we get a little by-catch. The by-catch we get is generally very small and Julie423img1either some type of invertebrate or seaweed that we weren’t necessarily intending to catch. Depending on what we are collecting there is a varying abundance and diversity of our by-catch. We commonly get a wide range of sizes of snails and limpets as well as amphipods and small sea stars.

I am bringing up the subject of by-catch because it is one my favorite parts about going through my collection bag after a dive. Of course this is second only to knowing that we collected what we need and as much as we planned. It is fun to be sorting through the algae and all of a sudden find something you have never seen before.

Today, we went diving to collect  more Gondo (the amphipod Gondogeneia antarctica) so we can set up a new experiment, along with the seaweed intended for that experiment, and one other seaweed that I use to feed my amphipods in my experiments. As mentioned before, the best way to get Gondo is to get the algae it lives on. That meant that we were targeting 3 species of seaweed and needed to dive at a few spots to get all of these species. As Maggie mentioned before (and Kate before that), the weather has not been good for diving much of this month so we haven’t been getting out to collect everything we need on as regular a basis as we had been earlier in the season. That means we needed to get as many of our target species as possible while the gettin’s good.

Despite the gently falling snow, our diligent tenders (Maggie and Juliet, our volunteer tender for the day and the station science instrument technician extraordinaire) piloted our zodiac to all four of our intended dive sites for today.  One site had unworkable conditions.  It has been chilly for the last couple of days so by the time we had completed our second dive I was thankful for the extra layer I put on under my drysuit, otherwise the last dive would have been really cold. However, we made it through all of the dives and collected our three target seaweeds.

To collect all of our target organisms we decide at our daily morning meeting which dive sites have what we are looking for and then choose the one that is most likely to have the best diving conditions (for instance the known dive sites that are most protected from the prevailing ocean swell or wind). We usually have a few back-up sites in mind if we can’t go to one of our primary sites, which can happen for lots of reasons like a curious leopard seal is playing in the area or there is too much brash ice.

Once we get to the sites and get in the water (as described in previous posts) we search for our target species. Sometimes this can take coordination. For instance, when we collected the seaweed (Desmarestia menziesii) to get more Gondo, I held the big yellow mesh collecting bag we use for larger seaweed collections while Chuck carefully removed the seaweed from the bottom, smoothly and gently swooping all of the seaweed and quickly escaping amphipods into a fine mesh amphipod collection bag. Amphipod collection bags have super-fine mesh so none of the tiny amphipods we are trying to collect can escape, which means we can get all kinds of crazy by-catch in these bags.

Julie423img3All of our collected seaweeds immediately go into buckets of seawater for transfer back Palmer station for processing since we collect them all in mesh bags. The mesh bags in the buckets of seawater usually just get transferred to our flow-through tank at Palmer until they can be sorted, unless they need some other special treatment. That means that what ever was on the seaweed when we collected in the mesh bags is still there as long as it is bigger than the holes in the mesh.

Sometimes our by-catch is hiding in the seaweed, like the sea stars or small crustaceans, like the amphipods or isopods. Other times they are hiding on the seaweed, like small pink sea cucumbers or snails. We are pretty familiar with the species that end up as by-catch more often, however, there are still a lot of species that we don’t know, like this little guy that Maggie was able to take some pictures of underneath the dissection microscope while it was hanging out on one of the branchy red seaweeds we have been collecting more often this year.  Julie423img2

However, today we caught one of the more charismatic by-catch I have seen so far… a little fish! Usually they move so quickly that they can quickly escape being caught. However, this little guy must have been hiding deep inside the braches of one of the D. menziesii we collected today because when we got back Chuck and Maggie found him while sorting through the samples. Right now he has a nice new home in a special “natural” tank being maintained by one of the fish researchers currently at Palmer Station. He is in good hands. In the image right  he is the little brown fish hanging out (in the one part of the tank that I don’t think looks very natural) with a lighter colored dragon fish (the dragon fish’s name is Archie by the way, Thomas has been having fun naming his fish).

Hopefully he will be good company. Most of the by-catch I have talked about so far is all animal, but we do get some seaweed by-catch too. I like this by-catch because it is often nice to press (like Maggie described in our most recent post). Depending on what it is, it can also sometimes be used in our other experiments but most of the time we “release” the algae and critters back to the ocean.



Finally!! Dive Ops (cont.)

The Gould arrived in the afternoon earlier this week bringing from Chile the ever-anticipated resupply of freshies. Oh yes, that evening we dined on salad and fresh fruit off-loaded from the ship just a few short hours before all queued up to the station’s short cafeteria line. The freshies are at the end of the line so all made sure to grab a bowl or leave plenty of room on the plate for a mound of greenery.

The Gould also delivered new residents many of who have never been to Antarctica or Palmer. So it doubly MaggieFinally1saddened me that the initial view for all aboard of Palmer Station included flags flying half-mast for the Boston Marathon bombing. Remote we are in some ways but clearly not out of touch with reality.

Included amongst the faces were familiar fish folks Kristin O’Brien from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and fellow ‘old-timer’ Lisa Crockett from the University of Ohio. Lisa and I first met many years ago at Palmer – during our graduate student days and at that time were among the younger scientists in residence. Not the case anymore….. Fish folks on-board meant recently caught fish on board that had to be offloaded before the people and the freshies as earlier described.

It seems the Gould even delivered to station bad weather! As the cargo shuffle continued into the evening the back-up beep beeping of heavy machinery was drowned out by a furious tympani ala metal roof. It was sleeting! Dense, ¼ inch diameter balls of ice pounded down on the roof and against the windows for a brief, yet nonetheless incredulous time. Mounds several inches deep piled up at doorways (see image left). What next a Palmerite exclaimed – thunderstorms in Antarctica?! As Bob Dylan writes and Kate would reprise – “ MaggeiFinally2the times they are a changin’”.

That day had started calm but just as we planned to depart on a dive, the winds jumped up so we put off our departure until after lunch if the winds died. Mother Nature did not cooperate so we stayed home that afternoon to do indoor science. It was not too inclement to offload the ship of cargo. For hours, beyond the window panes near the computer I worked at, heaps of cargo streamed out of the ship’s hold plus 2 containers (like 18 wheelers haul around) full of boxes containing an array of items for station facilities like light bulbs, paper towels, the replacement for the much needed second microwave in the galley,etc. A massive amount of dry goods food like flour, pasta, cereals and an equally heavy and generous range of frozen foods were stuffed into appropriate storage.   Weeks will be spent unpacking and organizing all. The Gould also delivered ‘snail mail’ letters and small packages that loved ones had mailed to station folk. Kate once again scored the deepest stack according the staff member whose duties include postal clerk.

Well the times did not change the following day. We had thought that we could at least do a shore dive in the relative protected from wind confines of the zodiac dock. The wind had shifted direction such that it was driving waters around the stern of the Gould bringing not only lumpy swells but lots of floating chunks of brash ice into the dock area. The gear that Kate and I had set up the day before would continue to lie dormant on the dive locker floor. Oh well. Weather – you like it or not.

Today, Sunday (our day off until 1 PM) grayed to a start with a sun rising somewhere reportedly just before 9am but Mr. Wind evident and blowing strong at 30 knots. Since we have been so weather hampered on dive ops, it was arranged the night before that if on wakening, unless your windows are leaking with driving rain/snow or rattling/whistling with wind  our group would meet at 9am to plan for a morning dive otherwise we would meet at normal Sunday time of 1PM. Dream on all as wind was 25-30 knots.

An early riser anyway, I was up for New York Times crossword puzzling long before our tentative but MaggieFinally3unrealized morning meeting. My attention turned to the lab but I played as algal artist – arranging some of my favorite algae onto to cotton rag/herbarium paper to create artful (well I think so) compositions of still life a al algae. Ever put a special flower into the middle of a thick book to flatten and preserve it? That is sort how algae art or dried algal specimens are prepared. In lieu of a heavy book we use a plant press basically comprised of a two piece slated wooden frame strapped together with a pair of black adjustable cinch straps. Between the frame can be any number of corrugated cardboard sheets hugging a pair of absorbent pulpy sheets called blotters. Sitting on the bottom blotter is the herbarium sheet with wetted, arranged algae. Atop the algae is a layer of either wax paper or cheesecloth to hold the arrangement in place. Another blotter sheet is sandwiched above and that topped off with another cardboard layer. The corrugation enhances air movement and drying/gluing of the alga onto the paper while the cinch straps provide pressure to ensure contact of specimen with herbarium paper. This technique not only serves as an artful expression of specimens but is also a great way to preserve algae (flowers, tree leaves, etc) without use of chemical preservatives. See the herbarium and associated tools and an example right.

Late in the morning, the Gould cast off lines and sailed away. In the ship’s wake, the winds calmed and a long forgotten blue sky fought through clouds to reacquaint itself with us. Hurray! The times are a changin’ for the better! Shortly after the project’s 1pm meeting, diver Kate and I were once again lifting our gear off the dive locker floor to load into the zodiac. Though the waters at the zodiac dock were still churning, the winds were favorable for boating so tenders Chuck and town tender Darren Yates (Utility Technician) helped Hannah Gray launch the loaded dive boat for our underwater escapade. Finally!

The waters were still pretty lumpy as Captain Darren slowly motored us to our intended dive site. It was not protected enough as we hope from the wind revved prevailing swell. Plan B. Kate and I were able to get some of the needed work done at the alternate swell-free site. We made a second dive in a very protected cove which was also productive. However, at each site, with each minute of the just over two hours we were out, the winds were slowly building. The Gould sailed away yet only briefly took the weather with her it seems. Now after a 5:30 sunset, the winds are bellowing at 30 knots. To exchange Bob Dylan with a twist on Jimmy Buffett lyrics, I guess you can’t “always take the weather with you”.