Letter from Birmingham Jail, via Antarctica

PalmerStationAntarctica-LetterBhamJail-smallerIt is a fantastic opportunity to be able to live and work in Antarctica. It is no less fantastic this sixteenth time than it was the first. The overall novelty may decline, but the appreciation of the splendor, and the sense of privilege in being here, does nothing but grow.

Part of the privilege is being able to represent or assist others who cannot be here. On the science side, that often means collecting organisms for colleagues who cannot come here but whose research efforts would be helped greatly by a very small amount of effort on our part to collect things for them. Almost always they are things that we would just swim over on a dive otherwise, so no extra field effort at all to collect. These colleagues often help us in return by assisting in identifications of organisms or in other ways.

On the human side, the privilege sometimes allows us to participate in something important that is meant to have global reach. Something for which having Antarctica – the least inhabited continent (and not permanently inhabited by anyone continent) – participate would make a difference that magnifies whatever personal contributions the folks here have the opportunity to make to it.

This year I was pleased when a special, and very unique for those of us from Birmingham, opportunity to make an Antarctic contribution to a global event came about. Fifty years ago, 1963, was a critical year in the Civil Rights Movement. Birmingham played a major part in the events of that year, and the city has a special commemoration all this year called Fifty Years Forward (http://50yearsforward.com/). UAB is an enthusiastic partner in the event.

PalmerStationAntarctica-LetterBhamJail3Tuesday, 16 April 2013, was the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s beginning to write his Letter from Birmingham Jail. Dr. King had been imprisoned along with many others for taking part in a non-violent protest that had not been allowed to have a permit. His letter was written to fellow clergymen who had written a letter to the Birmingham News critical of his and others' protests against the horrible and inexcusable racial discrimination that seems to have defined the Birmingham establishment in those years.

As part of the Fifty Years Forward Celebration, the Birmingham Public Library sponsored a worldwide reading of Dr. King's letter (http://www.bplonline.org/programs/1963/Letter.aspx). It is an extraordinary document. It is poignant, it is compelling. Part of me cannot imagine that things he was describing happened even though I know they did. All of me takes solace, and also much pride in my adopted city, in knowing that so much has moved forward in these fifty years. As Dr. King said, "I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom."

About six weeks ago, via a friend I was contacted by the Birmingham Public Library to see if UAB in Antarctica would be interested in participating in the event. Knowing the significance of the entire 50 Years Forward celebration and that UAB was a partner, I was happy to have this opportunity. I contacted the station management to make sure they were supportive and very quickly got an enthusiastic YES.

PalmerStationAntarctica-LetterBhamJail2At our station meeting last Saturday I announced this opportunity to the other 27 who have been the entire population of the station this past couple weeks. Lots wanted to participate, and nine of us had work schedules that would allow it on Tuesday. I had hoped that the weather would cooperate and allow us to be outside for the reading. The winds were about 15 knots, which is allowable for work requiring boating (and why some who wanted to participate could not) but considering it is Antarctica, after all, with the wind chill not exactly comfortable for concentrating on and contemplating the words in the letter, I decided that an inside reading would be better.

We gathered in the lounge part of the galley, which has a couch and a couple comfortable chairs next to a wood-burning stove. We did not read the entire letter, but I had gone through and picked out extended excerpts that I felt captured its spirit and major themes. I started the reading with the date 50 years ago and "My Dear Fellow Clergymen." We passed the letter from one to the next, ending with the winter construction superintendent reading "Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr."

BhamJailMapThe top three photos are those I took of the group during the reading. Each of us was impacted not only by what we read, but by all that we heard. It is a deeply moving document to read. It is almost inexpressively more resounding to hear read in such a setting. To me, hearing the words read were particularly compelling with respect to things that may seem relatively small compared to other things Dr. King was describing, but clearly are not. I think that the voice of another lends those aspects a poignancy that otherwise could be missed. For example, as the station manager read "when you suddenly find yourself tongue tied and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go the amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children..."

The bottom illustration is a map from the Birmingham Library web site showing all the places worldwide that participated in the event. All of us here at Palmer Station, those who were able to participate and those who could not but were with us in spirit, are very proud to be that lower-most blue circle and point. It is a privilege.

I want to end this post with the last part of the section that I read on Tuesday: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial 'outside agitator' idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds."

Dive Ops (cont.) Holy Divers

As a follow up to Chuck's and Maggie's descriptions of our diving operations (and as a tribute to P1030248Dio), I’m going to talk about today's dive. The weather has been fairly bad this month, more temperamental that I remember it being in April. But today we finally got to get away from station. The winds slowed down to about 10 knots and despite the bumpy swell from yesterday’s southern winds and Sunday’s storm we still had some sites that we knew were protected from the lively seas and diveable -  safe enough to “ride the tiger” (seen painted on box housing a depth finder on our zodiac, right) .

For the climate change experiment that Julie described, I take measurements of the photosynthetic capability of the two Desmarestia species using my good friend PAM ('who' I described in an earlier blog). To make sure that the instrument derived values are realistic I needed to measure these species in situ, or in their natural environment, as a comparison. So, for our dive this morning we needed a site that had reasonable sized communities of both species to Palmer Bathymetry - Unofficial Useenable an onsite determination.

DeLaca Island, which is also home to the shipwreck the Bahia Paraiso, has both species. Desmarestia are big, bushy brown algae and they can form really dense canopies (like in forests) underwater that cover the entire benthic habitat. At many of our sites only one species forms the canopy, for instance off the dock at Palmer station Desmarestia menziesii is very abundant. The benthic topography of DeLaca Island is such that the Bahia Paraiso is situated in a kind of amphitheater, from Jacobs Island around to the coastline of DeLaca. D. menziesii is pretty abundant between 5-10 meters while D. anceps covers large areas of the bottom from 10m down to the deepest part of this site which is probably 20-25m near the stern of the Bahia.

Today’s dive was unique in many ways. We had no town tender this morning because of a fire drill around 9:30 AM (Harry missed his opportunity for a second tour), so all group members went out to DeLaca. After we did our leopard seal search around the dive site we started getting suited up. Already in our fins and hoods, Maggie lost a contact on the floor of the Zodiac. That was a pretty comical scene: two divers and two tenders on their hands and knees searching for a tiny little convex lens in the floor mats. Eventually Julie found it and we continued suiting up, but Maggie was down to monocular vision for the dive.P1040536

Usually we have a dive plan set up and it’s communicated to the tenders so that they know where you’ll be for the pick-up. Our plan today was to drop down as deep as we could go, sight seeing for a bit to get an idea of what we might want to dive here for in the future. Then the plan was to come up and collect Desmarestia for PAM. All together a pretty short dive. The winds started picking up about the time we were finally ready (after prolonged eyeball search) to jump in so we putted around from our original drop into a more sheltered part of the island and got in.

The winds of late have been moving a lot of water around, and thankfully they’ve moved the murky, silty water away from Anvers Island (or so it seems) and our visibility was great. I think I even heard Maggie say “oooooo” when we dropped in. This was not a very deep spot like we had expected. It sloped down to about 17m, the bottom mostly made of bedrock and big boulders which were covered in various brown algae as well as some branching red algae. I collected my Desmarestia and was done with work in about 1 minute but decided that this was too good to end too soon. Change of plans, Maggie and I meandered around and made our way towards the north tip of DeLaca sight seeing. There’s a shallow shoal to make a safety stop and a safe pick up between DeLaca and the Bahia and we could see and hear the boat following us around above.

At our safety stop we saw a cool crustacean called Glyptonotus antarcticus- looks like the living fossil trilobite or more recent – cockroach!. Also we spied some rare algae species that we don’t see every year, and just as we were finishing our safety stop Maggie saw a leopard seal swim behind me near the shore of DeLaca. Seems we had been down too long in the midnight sea. Chuck and Julie saw him too so they revved the engine to let us know. A signal like that from the boat is our normal protocol for informing divers there’s a leopard seal in the area. Sure enough I looked over and saw his white spotted belly swimming away from me in the wash at DeLaca.

We ascended to the boat slowly and got in. Leopard seals can be curious animals, but not always. This guy was just cruising around near the shore minding his business so we weren’t very concerned. It was our first encounter this year on a dive, usually we see them more often but since we’ve been diving so little we haven’t hung out with ol’ lep yet. We treat these guys just like you P1040546might treat a tiger or shark; we don’t often see them and they don’t often hurt people, but between the velvet lies a truth of steal.

Back on the boat and getting warm we organized our samples and our gear to prepare for our ride back to station. Once we got to the dock, my samples had been dark adapted in buckets and PAM got busy. Despite a little wind, one-eyed Maggie and ol’lep we managed to have a very enjoyable and successful dive today just as planned.

-Holy Diver

Why Seastars Matter

Sea stars, also known as starfish (this latter term is a bit of misnomer considering they are certainly not Jim4OvalSponge"fish"), are common sea floor animals that are found in all the world's oceans. Most have five rays or arms, but others can muster as many as twenty-five to thirty as saw my previous "Unexpected Surprises" post. Their arms are lined with legions of tiny tube-feet that operate using a unique hydraulic plumbing system that squeezes water through tubes with tiny valves that open and shut. The tube-feet serve primarily for locomotion, but also play a role in food capture and sensing prey.

Sea stars employ a remarkable method of feeding. Your grandmother would not approve. Instead of swallowing their food they have the ability to slide their stomach out of their mouth and lay it on their prey. I tell my invertebrate zoology students that it is a good thing that humans have not followed suit. Can you imagine the dining scene in a restaurant? The sea star's stomach tissues are thin enough to slide between the tightly closed shells of a clam and digest its soft body tissues right within its own shell.  And as imaged above, sea stars can sit on their meal, in this case a sponge, and leisurely snack away at the sponge's soft tissue.

Jim4StarLarvaReproduction in sea stars typically involves separately sexed individuals producing millions of tiny eggs or sperm that are spawned simultaneously into the sea where fertilization occurs. The fertilized eggs develop into larvae equipped with little hairs – or cilia - that propel them through the water and aid in feeding on tiny plant cells called phytoplankton (See the image left). And yet, some sea stars do things quite differently. Rather than release their gametes into the sea, they roost their eggs like a chicken - a process called "brooding."

When I first visited the Ross Sea, Antarctica, I was a member of team led by sea star expert John Pearse. One of our research goals was to determine if brooding was in fact the dominant mode of reproduction in sea stars and other marine invertebrates. Early Antarctic marine biologists had predicted this would be case in cold polar water which would slow down larval development and render swimming larvae vulnerable to starvation and predators. In fact, while we found that brooding in Antarctic sea stars was not unusual, our team discovered several sea stars species that were quite content to toss their eggs and sperm into the water where their swimming larvae developed over a period of several months. They seemed to be doing just fine. Indeed, those species releasing their young into the sea were among the most numerous of sea stars.

Antarctic sea stars are especially important for a number of reasons. First and foremost, unlike other regions of the world, in Antarctica they are the top predators. Paul Dayton, a pioneer of Antarctic marine ecology, discovered that Antarctic sea stars shape the very communities in which they live. For example, he described the sea floor communities in McMurdo Sound as dominated by sponges. Most of the sponges grew very JIm4RossOvalslowly, but one grew remarkably fast. Here, several different species of sea stars, including some that ate only sponges (called spongivores), played pivotal roles in ensuring that the rapidly growing sponge did not crowd out all the other sponges and dominate the sea floor. One beautiful deep red sea star, Odontaster validus, was a key player in the community that Paul Dayton studied. It not only ate some of the fast growing sponge itself, but it also consumed the larvae and adults of the spongivorous sea stars – keeping their populations in check. This earned Odontaster the right to be considered a "keystone species", that is, a species that has a dramatic impact on the diversity of a community.

At Palmer Station, Odontaster validus is one of the stars of our research program. For many years our team has used this sea star as a model species to test the chemical feeding deterrent properties of various OvalTasterAntarctic marine invertebrates and algae. The reason for the popularity of Odontaster is not only its ecological importance – but that it loves to climb up the sides of our seawater tanks and then spread out– upside down – with the undersides of its arms and their outstretched tube-feet positioned against the air-water interface. This allows members of our team to take bits of tissue or food pellets containing extracted chemistry and gently place them on the outstretched tube-feet. If the sea stars don't like the taste they quickly drop the tissue or pellet off the side of their arm – or if they like it – they carry it their mouth. It's the perfect taste test!

We can count our lucky stars for Odontaster validus. Let's hope the focus of our team's current research at Palmer Station, ocean acidification and warming, do not take a toll on these wondrous, yet potentially very vulnerable animals.