CSU worm herders use blogs to transport armchair researchers to Antarctica

We may complain about February’s ice and snow, but a team of Colorado State University researchers spend their fall and winters in the most extreme terrestrial environment on Earth: the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica. I recently ran across the blogs of Diana Wall (nemablog.wordpress.com) and Josh Heward (polartrec.com/expeditions/tough-tardigrades). Both blogs give the reader insights into the stark beauty and harsh reality of a place that has been an ice-covered desert (mostly) for 15 million years.

These Colorado State scientists are part of The McMurdo Dry Valleys Long-Term Ecological Research Program (MCM LTER). Research teams have successfully completed October to February field seasons since 1993 with the goal of understanding how this uniquely austere cold, salty, and dry environment supports a stingy host of organisms that may serve as the coal mine canaries that will alert the rest of us to impending traumas from climate change.

So what lives on this 4,800 square kilometers of harsh real estate — besides curious primates in parkas? Perceptive readers may guess worms, since I mention them in the title for this piece. Sure enough, nematodes—perhaps the most numerous multicellular animals on Earth—have staked a claim here. In more affluent habitats, nematodes are often parasites of plants and other animals. In Antarctica, free-living species predominate, feeding on fungi, bacteria or each other.

Tardigrades (sometimes called water bears) also make a living here. These eight-legged, nearly indestructible invertebrates can withstand temperatures from just above absolute zero to well above the boiling point of water, can survive high pressures and radiation and can live without food or water for up to 10 years. Primitive insects called springtails or snow fleas — some of the first colonizers of dry land over 400 million years ago — make up an additional part of the resident animals. Microscopic animals called rotifers and various singled-celled protozoans also hang out here. Mosses, fungi, bacteria (photosynthetic or otherwise), and lichens (algae-fungus partnerships) fill out the living role call.

This life form assemblage represents a kind of ecological habitat 101, a much-simplified version of the more complex living networks one finds on Colorado’s prairies, for example. Changes in solar radiation and temperature cause immediate impacts in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Researchers need to be on site to record these events to obtain the insights that will later prove useful to interpreting climate change effects in more mature ecosystems.

The harsh weather conditions of Antarctica also impose flexibility on researchers. Josh Heward titled a recent blog: “13 January 2017 Canceled Flight, Good News and Bad News.” That day’s research had to be cancelled because of weather, but that meant they could spend another day along the shore of Lake Hoare. They hiked to see impressive views of a local glacier and observed stones sculpted into pitted swirls (called ventifacts) by the action of the wind. A pair of dead seals near the lakeshore became a food bonanza for bacteria and algae, creating a rare bloom of color in a mostly gray and white landscape.

When I asked Josh on his blog how he got into this area of research he said, “I had worked previously with one of the principal investigators on this project, Byron Adams. A few years ago I helped him on a project surveying the biodiversity of tardigrades across the LTER network in North America. I first learned about PolarTREC and became interested in the MCM LTER at that time. I am a big fan of long-term research activities and think it is the best way to do ecological research. I enjoy my involvement in programs like PolarTREC because it allows me to find ways to better incorporate current research into my teaching and design learning activities that are authentic for my students.”

Diana Hall blog describes the beauty of “ice art” on display in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. She quotes British writer Jay Griffiths: “Ice is an artist generous with its sculpture. Beyond audience or applause, it creates in profusion for only one reason—that it has a need to create.”

So, brave reader, endure our milder version of February with its occasional ice storms, snow and other bursts of sometimes annoying creativity, or travel vicariously to one end of the Earth — Antarctica — and see life and nature at her frigid extremes. It’s a field laboratory that will help measure—and hopefully soften—our climate footprint on the planet.

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