After we had our Boating 1 and 2 training, we were finally able to get out and about! Throughout the years at Palmer, our field teams have used zodiac boats to zip around from island to island in search of our study species, the Antarctic midge.
The zodiacs are heavy-duty rubber dingys that are surprisingly fast and durable. The boating limit around station is 2 miles in any direction. The islands we visit are anywhere from a 5-20-minute boat ride from station. The process from station to island is not too difficult. We check with the marine technicians on availability of a boat, and the weather forecast for that day. Then we prep our boat with dry bags of a change of clothes and other precautionary items, our gear for that day, GPS trackers, a safety bag filled with survival gear in case we got stranded, other necessary items. We have to grab a “Mustang” jacket or suit for ourselves, with reflective orange tape and a built-in lifejacket. After checking for air pressure and fuel, we can take off. Zigzagging through icebergs and avoiding penguins and seals, we make our way to an island. Each island has a pull in point, with a stake driven into the rock. One person has to grab the bow line and tie off the boat to the stake, using a bolus knot and sometimes a cloverleaf knot. Once we unload all our safety gear, we unload ourselves and begin our research!
The Antarctic midge, Belgica Antarctica is touted as the largest terrestrial animal on the entire continent of Antarctica. It’s the only animal on land that doesn’t migrate to and from the ice continent. Instead, its equipped with the adaptation of freeze-tolerance. This means that the larvae, buried beneath feet of snow and ice during the long winter months are frozen, but remain alive. Our research teams have spent the last 10 years studying the physiology, cellular and genetic mechanisms of how this little worm-like fly larvae can survive such conditions. On the islands during the summer months, ice and snow melt away to reveal deep moss beds, some with penguin or seal feces, some with a species of grass and algae intermingled. During this time of year, we are able to see adult midges out walking around. These tiny, fragile little midges are unlike the ones we have back home. They are about the size of a sharpened pencil lead point, black and wingless. The adult form live only about a week, just enough time to find a mate and for her to lay eggs. The larvae are also still found in the summer. By taking a chunk of moss and taking a look, you can begin to see one, two, ten, twenty little larvae squirming around. We take these moss chunks back to the lab, put them under a Berlese funnel and the result is sometimes tens of thousands of midges!
This year our field team is doing a wide variety of research with the midges. From basic physiology experiments of understanding how the midges survive their harsh environment, to ecology experiments aimed at understanding how the midge influences its microhabitat. Our 2018 field team has a lot to accomplish over the next 8 weeks!