UAB in Antarctica
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Charles Amsler, Ph.D.

Mission Co-Investigator
Associate Professor, UAB Department of Biology

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When Chuck Amsler arrives in Palmer Station in February 2004, he’ll be going back to a place with many fond memories. Amsler, 45, is a marine algal ecophysiologist, meaning he’s a biologist who studies, among other things, the physiological adaptations of algae to their environments. That includes macroalgae, large marine plants also known as seaweeds.

Amsler made his first trip to Palmer from December 1985 to March 1986 as a volunteer field assistant with a team of researchers from the University of California - Santa Barbara. That team included Amsler’s wife, Maggie, a biologist who was then making her fourth trip to Antarctica. She is also a member of the current UAB team.

“I wanted to find out why my wife kept leaving me for three months a year,” Amsler said. Besides giving him a common ground with his wife, Antarctica grabbed the young researcher’s imagination. “I became excited about the scientific opportunities there on that trip and immediately began trying to get back to do my own work.”

He returned to Palmer in 1989 at the behest of the National Science Foundation to assess the damage caused by a shipwreck and oil spill off the coast. Since then he has co-lead three expeditions to Palmer Station between 2000 and 2003 (a total of over eight months) looking at the chemical defenses of marine organisms and endeavoring to understand exactly how they use these chemicals to defend themselves. On two of those expeditions, he has also served as the overall Station Science Leader.

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In the 11 years between his second and third visits to Palmer, Amsler was part of three research expeditions to McMurdo Station Antarctica. Two of the trips to McMurdo, in 1997 and 1998, studied the chemical ecology of invertebrates, algae, and bacteria, The third trip, soon after Amsler came to UAB in 1994, studied the ecophysiology of microalgae that live in sea ice.

Amsler looks forward to his upcoming sixth trip back to Palmer. With about 35 researchers in residence, Palmer is “another world from McMurdo,” a station with sometimes as many as 1,000 people living there.

“Both Palmer and McMurdo are wondrous places to live and to do marine biology,” Amsler said, “but they are about as different from one another as two places can be.”

One difference is the sea bottom near Palmer, which is dominated by macroalgae. Phycology is the formal name of the scientific study of algae. Amsler noted “Palmer and the area of Antarctica it is in are a true wonderland for a phycologist because of the large biomass of macroalgae and the dominant role they play in the marine communities.”

“There are almost no macroalgae at McMurdo. This, coupled with some of the unique oceanographic characteristics of coastal Antarctica, allows us to pose important new scientific questions that could not be examined anywhere else, including at McMurdo,” he said.

“In terms of terrestrial natural history, Palmer has many, many more species of birds and seals. And although we could go the whole trip without seeing a whale, whales can be quite common in the area around the station.”

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