Monday, February 13, 2023

Home Sweet Home

After a very long journey, we are finally back home in the U.S. 

I spent about 25 hours in airports and airplanes to get home. I left Punta Arenas around lunch time on February 9. From there, I flew to Santiago, then on to the U.S. I landed in Texas in the early morning of Feb 10. Then, I just had one short flight left to get from Texas to my home in Arizona! I got home just in time for lunch on the 10th.

I slept a lot for the first couple of days after getting home. After 6 weeks of working with no days off, and then 25 hours without sleep to travel home, I was very tired! Now that we've settled back in at home, it's time to get back to work! Our samples will be shipped to us, but they won't arrive for a couple more months. In the meantime, we still have last year's samples to continue working on!

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Cargo and samples

We have spent the past two days in Punta Arenas organizing our cargo and samples for shipment back to the U.S.

When we landed in the Herc, all of our boxes were sent to the INACH warehouse by the docks. (INACH is the acronym for Instituto Antartico Chileno, or the Chilean Antarctic Institute).

The next morning, we went to the warehouse to pick up our boxes and move them to the U.S. Antarctic Program’s warehouse, which luckily is only a few doors down from INACH’s. 

There, we packaged our samples to keep them frozen at the correct temperature until they get to my lab in Arizona. They will travel on a ship, which means I won’t see them again for a few months! We have to complete a LOT of paperwork to get them safely to the U.S. and make sure they have all of the appropriate labels and permits. We were very busy, so I didn’t take any pictures of us doing that.

We also had to return our cold-weather outdoor gear to the appropriate warehouses and hand-deliver some samples to labs here in Punta Arenas. We couldn’t carry it all at once, so we were coming back-and-forth to the hotel all day. I think we walked the entire city three times!

We finished all of that work in good time, and we had a bit of spare time for a hike in the national reserve above Punta Arenas!

It was nice to walk through a forest, and to stretch our legs before a very long flight back home to the U.S. later today!

Monday, February 6, 2023

A surprise exit

It’s a good thing we packed all of our gear yesterday!

We were scheduled to return to Chile on Tuesday on an Air Force plane. However, Chile’s Air Force is busy fighting a very large, dangerous fire in Chile right now. We weren’t sure they’d be able to stop to come get us from Antarctica. 

Today, a plane from the Peruvian Air Force landed, and they agreed to take us back to Chile… right now! We had 45 minutes warning to finish packing our suitcases, move our cargo to the hangar, and clean up. It was frantic, but we did it!

So instead of eating lunch, we flew as cargo in a Hercules LC-130 with Peru’s Air Force back to Chile.

Now we are in Punta Arenas. We have enjoyed a refreshing shower and have clean clothes on. And we were all very hungry by 8 pm when we could finally eat dinner!

Tomorrow we will have a busy day tracking down our cargo and preparing it for shipping back to the US. But first, a good night’s sleep is in order!

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Packing up

Our work is coming to a close! We have completed our field work, and collected all of our samples. We have been working hard in the lab for the past few days to finish our invertebrate extractions. 

The lights under the table are for our Tullgren funnels that we use to extract the arthropods from the plant and soil samples. Zoie is working on drying her plant cores for more analyses back at home.

Now that our lab work is also done, we have packed our cargo. We are scheduled to fly back to Punta Arenas, Chile on Tuesday. That’s just a couple days away! So, all of our gear is in boxes, and our samples are safely packed up. We are officially done working, because everything is in boxes!

Most of the scientists who are working at Escudero are scheduled to leave in the next couple of days. So, most of us are busily finishing up our work and packing. We did take time, though, for a group photo in front of the station!

Now that our work is done, we are just waiting for our flight back to Chile when the next leg of our work begins: shipping cargo! I will keep you posted. 

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Soil organisms are cuter than penguins!

Today we spent some time inspecting moss species at one of our main research sites. This is a great way to see some of the soil organisms that we study!

For our experiments, we extract the organisms from the soil and plants in the lab, and look at them through a microscope. But to do this, they are preserved in ethanol or formaldehyde. They aren’t alive when we work with them in the lab. 

To see them alive in their natural habitat, you have to look closely! It may look like nothing is living in the moss or soil… but if you move a rock, you can see all sorts of organisms living there! (You might have to make the video full-screen in order to see the small critters!)

The first things you see in the video are some white Collembola, which are commonly called springtails. These springtails spend their life below the surface, which is why they are white. Why bother making pigment if nobody can see you through the soil anyway? 

Then, you will see some mites. These move on the surface and below, so they are brown to blend in with the soil. There are two kinds of mites in the video. One is moving around a lot on top of the soil and moss. The other one is burrowed down a bit and you have to look closely to see it move. 

Here is another video featuring a mite on top of the moss, and a LOT of springtails crawling around among the moss. 

So, as you can see, these organisms are very adorable. They use the moss as their habitat to live and graze for food. They are small, but if you know where to look, you can find a lot of them!

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Move like a penguin

When most people think of Antarctica, they think of penguins. They are certainly the most popular Antarctic animal. So, of course I have to write a post about penguins!

Penguins are very good swimmers. Their bodies are built to allow them to be very agile underwater. They have a streamlined shape that reduces drag, and their oily feathers make the water flow smoothly around them. Their wings aren't good for flying, but they make very good flippers to propel themselves forward in the water. Their feet tuck in by their tail to steer like a rudder. That's how they can escape their predators! This is a very short video, but see that white spot zooming around underwater? That's a penguin swimming just beneath the surface of the water!

Penguins breathe air, though, so they can't keep swimming to hunt for their food if they can't come up for air. But if a penguin has to come to a stop in order to breathe, they might be found by a predator! They need to breathe while they're swimming. So, penguins will also do what's called "porpoising". Penguins will swim quickly underwater, and then jump out of the water and dive back down. They look like porpoises when they do that. And, like porpoises, they do this to breathe air without having to stop or lose their speed.

You can find some very good facts about how penguins swim from this website. But I am a soil ecologist, so I don't see them underwater. I see them on land!

Penguins come on land to nest. While their body shape makes them good swimmers, they are much less graceful on land! To stay balanced on their two feet, they have to hold their wings out and back. In this video, the chinstrap penguin in the lower front shows you how they waddle over flat ground, and then hop with two feet to jump onto rocks. Their body shape is streamlined for swimming, but on land it makes them look a bit fat and unbalanced. They do tend to trip and fall down a lot, especially if they're trying to move too fast!

However, moving on land is much easier for a penguin when there is snow on the ground! Penguins will slide across snow and ice on their bellies. They use their feet and wings to push themselves along like paddles. It's like swimming on land! You can see the tracks through snow where other penguins have crossed the snow, so it's a popular mode of travel. (And if your sound is on, you can hear the musical stylings of a penguin colony.)

I see a lot of penguins while I'm doing my field work in Antarctica. This is how I see them: waddling and hopping around on rocks, sliding on snow and ice, and (if I'm near a beach) porpoising above the water. They are very cute, but I still think soil organisms are much cuter!

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Charismatic organisms of Antarctica

Everybody of course loves penguins and seals, who are the most famous Antarctic animals. But there are a lot of other animals that don't get as much attention. They are often small or live deep underwater, so they don't get nearly as much attention as the big, cute animals like penguins. But I think these small and unknown organisms are the most interesting to learn about!

This year we are working at Escudero with a lot of different scientists who study these small organisms. When we have time, we show each other our super cool animals under the microscope so that we all get to enjoy learning about them! I've met some cool critters in the lab.

I have been able to meet some fish larvae. This icefish larvae is my favorite, because of its large fins. Icefish only live in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. They are a unique species because they do not have hemoglobin in their blood, so their blood is colorless! They don't need the hemoglobin to help carry oxygen in their blood because the cold waters around Antarctica tend to have a lot of dissolved oxygen. 

Another cool organism I learned about is called a chiton. (Pronounced in English like kye-ton.) These are mollusks that live on rocks in the intertidal areas of oceans. They are covered in plates that protect them like armor. The plates are partially overlapped so that they can bend and flex as they move over uneven rocks. Chitons look like underwater roly-polies! 

The cool thing I learned about chitons is that their shells have a bunch of sensory organs under their shells to sense light and dark. Some of them have ocelli which act like eyes. So, chiton shells are covered with thousands of eyes! Like other mollusks, they have a radula, which is a tongue-like structure in their mouth covered with teeth to scrape algae off of rocks. Chitons' teeth on their radula are coated in magnetite, which means their teeth are made of magnetic iron! 

Chitons range in size, but the ones being collected here at Escudero are very small. Here are Cecelia's hands as she was putting the chiton in place on the microscope. The chiton is in between her fingers on her left hand.

We also shared some of our soil organisms with everyone. Everyone was excited to be able to see one of the most adorable soil organisms: a tardigrade! Here is the tardigrade that we found living in the soils of our transplant experiment:

Tardigrades live everywhere around the world. In soils, they live in the water that surrounds the grains of soil. They also live in moss and other plants. They are INCREDIBLY resilient. They can survive not only the extreme cold here in Antarctica, but also extreme heat, pressure, radiation, dehydration... even the vacuum of space! Many of the other scientists here had never seen a Tardigrade in person before, so they were excited to be able to see one in person.