Antarctica becomes Christmas retreat for biology student

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    By Andrew Damstedt

    Antarctica isn?t the usual place where students would think to spend their Christmas break, but that is the destination of one research team, including a BYU professor and student.

    The research team or ?wormherders? consist of six people from Dartmouth College, four people from Colorado School of Mines and two people from BYU, Byron Adams, assistant professor of microbiology, and John Chaston, senior in microbiology.

    There are no local residents in Antarctica, but there are permanent and summer-only staffed research stations. Chaston and Adams are located at McMurdo station, a complex of nearly 150 buildings that shelters up to 1,100 scientists and support staff. It is located on Ross Island built on the bare volcanic rock of Hut Point Peninsula.

    Chaston said living in Antarctica is far less glorious than would be expected. The dorm rooms look like a typical college dorm room, which house two individuals. Also, they eat three ?hearty meals? in a cafeteria every day to make sure they have enough energy throughout the day.

    Adams described Antarctica as very cold, dry and windy, in e-mail from his research station.

    ?Antarctica is the perfect place to study things like soil biodiversity, because the soils down here are the simplest soil ecosystems on the planet,? Adams said. ?Any other place in the world has all sorts of compounding factors, like plants and animals that live above ground that can affect what goes on below ground. Down here, those variables are eliminated from our experiments because there?s nothing that lives above ground. So it?s like a giant, natural laboratory.?

    The research team is gathering ecological data and studying the unique environment.

    Adams said he and Chaston are doing long-term research involving soil ecosystems and how climate change affects the way they work.

    ?We?ve mostly discovered things that we didn?t expect to find, like how widespread nematode worms are in this extreme environment, and what a huge role they play in cycling carbon and nitrogen through the extreme environment,? Adams said.

    Adams gave examples of the unexpected discoveries made by the ?wormherders?.

    ?It appears that there is no predation among the animals in this ecosystem, and that the food web isn?t really much of a web at all,? Adams explained. ?Just this year we found huge populations of what we thought were terrestrial worms living in the bottoms of the ice covered lakes.?

    Most of Antarctica is warming but the Dry Valleys are becoming colder which is negatively affecting biodiversity.

    ?We came in thinking that an increase in soil temperature would increase the abundance and possibly even biodiversity of soil organisms, but instead we found the opposite, primarily attributable to a decrease in soil moisture as temperatures are elevated.?

    Chaston, BYU student from Somersworth, N.H., said when he first arrived, all he did was identify nematodes, multicellular wormlike organisms, under a microscope but with the arrival of other members his job changed to pulling specific nematodes out of the sample and storing them so the team can extract their DNA.

    ?It?s fun to look at the nematodes under the microscope and see them wiggling around and doing other things,? Chaston said in the e-mail he wrote from McMurdo station.

    There are two other types of invertebrates that he looks at under the microscope called rotifers and tardigrades.

    ?The rotifers have these two buzz saws on the front of their mouth, that they use to propel water through their mouth and filter out nutrients in the process,? Chaston said. ?It”s way cool to see those guys underneath the scope. And the tardigrades are also called water bears because they kind of look like bears. Imagine a microscopic, transparent, six-legged bear with four massive claws at the end of each arm (these things really look like arms – not just stubs) and you”ve got yourself a tardigrade.?

    Melissa Northcott and her professor are hydrologists from the Colorado School of Mines who are looking at the margins of streams and lakes and studying the variation in temperature, moisture content, and evaporation rates throughout the wetted zones.

    ?The area is a particularly unique place given the cold temperatures and very dry conditions,? Northcott said in an email she sent from Antarctica. ?As well, we will study the water flow rates in the area and the elements and isotopes that are being concentrated in the water and soil.?

    Chaston said he was driven to research in Antarctica because of its unique environment. Antarctica has been undisturbed by man except for minor interactions in the last 100 years.

    ?The natural Antarctic populations exist as they have for thousands of years,? Chaston said. ?Further, the Antarctic ecosystem is much simpler than found in more temperate environments, and that allows us to analyze minor changes (such as temperature or humidity) that we can manipulate and monitor directly by seeing how all of the populations involved are affected.?

    One of the highlights for Adams is how the interaction among scientists differs in Antarctica.

    ?Down here, they pack us all into shared labs and close quarters and so you interact very closely with some of the smartest, coolest people, with very different angles on science-geologists, physicists, astronauts, etc.,? Adams said. ?It?s interesting to learn about their research and beneficial to get feedback on our projects from their perspective.?

    Northcott, a recent BYU graduate, said an interesting thing about Antarctica to her is the weather, because it is not really cold but the weather can become severe because of the wind.

    ?Helicopters and planes have not been able to travel to or around Antarctica for the past few days given the very poor visibility and dangerous winds,? Northcott said.

    There are many restrictions for the researchers. They aren?t allowed to go hiking by themselves because of crevasses and the danger of getting lost.

    ?It is difficult to know where you are, because the sun is not much help, and if visibility is low, there are no mountains to help you and every direction on the compass is North,? Northcott said. ?Another weird thing about Antarctica is that we must categorize and separate all our garbage and leave absolutely nothing here, in order to protect the delicate environment. But haircuts, food, housing, and laundry soap are free. It is a good place for the unemployed, although it is very difficult to get here.?

    A law for researchers in Antarctica is they are not allowed to interact with the animals. But Chaston said the animals don?t always follow these regulations.

    ?First, there are the skuas, birds that are pretty much the Antarctic equivalent of a seagull,? Chaston said. ?Experience at McMurdo has shown that skuas are particularly fond of human food, they have been known to dive bomb people walking out of the cafeteria building with food in their hands and snatch it away.?

    He said the funny ones are the anti-smoking skuas.

    ?They see people coming out of the cafeteria with a cigarette in their hand and dive bomb it thinking that it is food, snatching it right out of people?s mouths,? Chaston said. ?Later on they drop it, but by then nobody wants to use it at that point, it is a humorous part of daily life down here.?

    Another example of animals interacting with humans is the ruffian penguins near Cape Hallett. Chaston recounted a story of a geologist he works with who was at one of the yellow ?pee flags,? designated outside urination areas, when he was surrounded by a group of 30 young penguins.

    ?They came up around him in a circle, and as he was leaving the flag, one of them came up and bit him on the knee,? Chaston said. ?Because of regulations he couldn?t do anything back, and it didn?t seem like it hurt too much,? Chaston said.

    Adams, Chaston?s professor, said he enjoys the soft serve ice cream and his first year the helicopter rides were the highlight, but this year he has found something different.

    ?The absolute highlight is setting up a tent next to a glacial melt stream and drifting off to sleep under full sunlight at 2 a.m.,? Adams said. ?If you?re into wilderness, the feeling of solitude you get here is, well, indescribable. You can?t get much farther away from civilization than a mountain valley in Antarctica.?

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