2018 Field Team: Dr. Nick Teets

One of the coolest (pun intended) things about Belgica is that they can literally freeze solid. When their habitats freeze, the blood (insect blood is called hemolymph) inside of a Belgica larva turns to ice. Not many insects are capable of surviving freezing, and one of my research goals is to figure out how this amazing process works. While on station and back in my lab at University of Kentucky, I am conducting experiments to learn what sorts of changes happen inside a larva’s body when it freezes. In addition to allowing us to better understand how Belgica survives in Antarctica’s harsh climate, this work could help improve human medicine. The ability to freeze human organs for long periods of time would benefit sick people in need of transplants, but freezing organs currently isn’t possible. By learning how this tiny midge survives frozen solid for nine months a year, we hope that scientists in the future will be able to design better strategies for freezing human organs for transplants.

In addition to the biology of freezing, I am also interested in learning how Belgica evolved to survive Antarctica’s climate. In future projects, we will be comparing Belgica with other closely related midge species to see what is different about Belgica. We will also compare populations of Belgica from different parts of Antarctica to see how Belgica adapts to variable climates along the Antarctic Peninsula.

This is my third trip to Antarctica, and I am excited to be back. It has been seven years since I last came to Antarctica as a grad student at Ohio State University. We have a great team this year, and it has been fun working with some old colleagues (Yuta and Ben) and the new wave of Antarctic insect researchers (JD and Leslie). It is privilege to work in this beautiful place, and hopefully these blog entries will give you a glimpse into the life of an Antarctic scientist

Drs. Nick Teets (foreground) and Dr. Yuta Kawarasaki working in the lab on an experiment.

2018 Field Team: Leslie

Our 2018 field team is all present and accounted for here at Palmer Station! Dr.’s Nick Teets, Yuta Kawarasaki, and Ben Phillip arrived about a week ago on the LMG. They didn’t waste any time getting out in the field and started on their projects! We have just under 4 weeks to get a lot accomplished, and time goes by so fast down here on the ice. The next several entries will focus on each of our team member’s projects and how they got into Antarctic research.

Starting us off, your truly.

My name is Leslie, and I am a Ph.D. student of Nick Teets. I started in his lab about 2 years ago focusing my research on overwintering wolf spiders in Kentucky. Back home, I study the impacts of winter warming on juvenile wolf spiders’ physiology and ecology. Not a lot has been done with spiders in the winter, so a lot of my research is trying to answer basic questions of their cold-tolerance, and effects of overwintering on their nutrition and ecological roles. Right now, my projects include simulating warmer winter conditions as predicted by climate change trends and how these may impact the spiders’ ability to remain active. I’ve also got projects answering how the spiders’ nutrients and diet impact overwintering survival, and their biochemical adaptations to surviving winter.

When Nick asked if I wanted to go to Antarctica to study the midge, I couldn’t believe it! I knew he had been down in the past, and that he was affiliated with both PI’s on the grant, but I never thought that I would be able to come down! This has been a wonderful experience, both personally and professionally, and I will forever be grateful for this opportunity. My official role on our 2018 team is the outreach and education coordinator. Each year our team has brought down a professional educator to facilitate bringing the research we do to the community, and reach a broader audience. Nick asked me to fill this role, as my career goal is to become a small-college professor, where teaching and education are my main duties. I am working with local children’s museums, schools and colleges back home in Lexington, Kentucky to bring our research to them. We have a live video session with one of the museums next week, and we’re able to have it outside with a view of the glacier and any penguins for the kids!

Besides my outreach component, I am also conducting a field study with Belgica. With my interests in how physiology can impact ecology, I am collecting microhabitat data from areas where we collect midges. On five islands, I collect samples and record data from twenty plots along a transect. I collect moss, algae and grass for nutrient and microbe analyses, bring back substrate to count for midges, springtails and mites, and record the temperature and moisture of the substrate. My hope is to gain more understanding of the conditions Belgica live in, and hopefully a little more of the interactions between them and other players in the ecosystem. This is all done here at Palmer. I’m also planning a more controlled lab study when we return home, with midges and a common substrate, to measure any changes the midge causes in nutrient and microbe measurements.

From left: Dr. Nick Teets, Leslie Potts, Dr. Yuta Kawarasaki, Dr. Ben Phillip, and J.D. Gantz
We’re posed on top of Hermit island, with Mt. Williams in the background

My “science square” and field notebook, taking plot measurements on Amsler Island.

Buggers on Antarctica!

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!

On of our team members, J.D. Gantz, driving the boat close enough to the island for me to tie us off.

The adult form of the Antarctic midge. This little insect lives about a week as an adult. They spend most of their 2 year life as a larvae within the moss beds at the edge of the picture.

A colony of Adelie penguins on Cormorant Island. The Adelie penguins have experienced a 90% decline in population sizes on the islands around Palmer. Populations are dwindling due to increased variability in temperature, storms and snowfall and snowmelt caused by climate change.

Life on Palmer Station

Palmer Station is one of three U.S Antarctic research station. The other two, McMurdo and South Pole, are located further south and more inland. Palmer is on an island, located right on the water. Most of the research completed here is marine in nature, from phytoplankton and zooplankton, to krill and larger sea invertebrates. Whale researchers also come through here and divers that research sea stars and other marine life, as well as birders studying the penguin colonies on surrounding islands. Our “bugger” team has been coming to Palmer for 10 field seasons.

Palmer Station was built in the late 70’s. Throughout the summer season (October-April) there are about 40 people on station. This group includes scientists, station managers, marine technicians and other crew. We dine together, help clean around station together and keep ourselves entertained when not doing our research or other duties. Palmer has one main lab building (Bio building). There are 10 lab spaces on the first floor, equipped with everything from aquatic tanks and walk in coolers to thermocyclers and test tube shakers. While Palmer itself has a lot of equipment, each research group is required to make a list of required materials. These are then shipped from the states, and rides on the LMG with us across the ocean to station.

The second floor of Bio is the galley (kitchen) and the main offices of station managers and departments. Our kitchen has two chefs—this year Mike and Casey, who cook breakfast, AM snack, lunch, PM snack and dinner 6 days a week. Sundays are everyone’s day off, so if you want food, you either have to cook it yourself, or raid the “Debra Jo”, the gargantuan leftover fridge. The third floor of Bio is where half of station lives in the dorm rooms. The other half live in a separate building, about a 2-minute walk from Bio. This building, GWR (stands for garage, warehouse and recreation) is newer and the envy of Bio people. I have the privilege of bunking here! The rooms have a bunk bed, two dressers and a desk. Each room also has a satellite phone for calling family and friends back in the states.

When we’re not doing research, or helping out on station, there are tons of things to do at Palmer! There is a gym, ham radio, music room, “Sheathbill Saloon” aka the bar, and hot tub. Also, in our backyard there is a recreation cabin for those who want to rough it a little more than the dorms allow. Behind station is also a glacier that you can hike, snowboard or ski down. The glacier is named Marr Ice Piedmont glacier. It’s one of Antarctica’s 244 marine glaciers. It has been in retreat for the last 40 years, receding about 300 meters. What was once a short walk from station is now a barren land of rock and snow drifts before reaching the glacier’s start. Researchers continually check for weak spots and set out flag barriers for those hiking up.

You can see Palmer station in the background of this sleepy Leopard Seal on an iceberg

Flags on the glacier indicating the safe zones to hike up. Don’t go past the flags!

Area between station and the glacier. 40 years ago this would have all been covered by the Marr Ice Piedmont glacier

Getting to Antarctica

After a full 25 hours of flying into Punta Arenas, Chile we stayed overnight at Jose Negueira hotel. This is a historical location of William Shackelton, one of the first explorers to Antarctica. After his ship crashed he came to drink his sorrows at the bar in this historic hotel.
The next day was spent getting all our gear and paperwork cleared for our journey. We were all given a gear bag full of cold and wet weather apparel. Boots, bibs and waterproof gloves were some of the items we were loaned. After a day of prep, we rubbed Magellan’s toe in the city square of Punta Arenas, and then took off!

We set said on the Laurence M. Gould (LMG) research vessel. This 230-foot vessel is much more equipped to handle the ice and rough seas of our journey than the old wooden boats of Shackelton’s time. The LMG’s ice-enforced hull can handle up to a foot of ice and the constant rocking motion common in the Drake Passage. Our journey was estimated to be 4 days. We set sail from Punta Arenas through the Straits of Magellan towards the east, then headed sourth along Argentina towards Cape Horn. From there, across the Drake Passage into Palmer Station Antarctica.

The Drake Passage is known as some of the roughest waters in the world. It’s a confluence of three oceans (Atlantic, Pacific and Southern) and is known to produce swells up to 80ft high and have winds of over 100 knots. We entered the Drake at around Day 2. Weather radars were showing a significant storm system over the Drake, so the captain of the LMG decided to veer us off course to avoid the worst of the storm. Our journey was delayed by 12 hours, and we still experienced 3 days of 40-50ft swells and 50 knot winds. The scientists on board were not allowed to go on deck during the worst of it. So most of us took Dramamine and napped the days away.

But by day 5, we were through the storm! We came through the Neumeyer Channel, and it was a beautiful site after a long journey at sea. From the ship’s bridge (where the navigation equiptment is) we saw penguins, humpback whales, minke whales and terns and petrels. We saw our first icebergs against a clear background of blue skies and bluer waters. It was definilty a welcome site after living inside the boat for days! A few hours through the channel and we reached our final destination—Palmer Station on Anvers Island! 7,201 miles later and our jouney begins!

Laurence M. Gould research vessel

Statue of Magellan in the city square of Punta Arenas. It is said to bring good luck if you rub his toe!

View from the LMG bridge onto the Neumeyer Channel. A welcome site after a rough few days!

Crossing the Drake Passage: A Lake or a Shake?


On December 30th, 2016 (Day #5), we set sail on the final leg of our journey to Antarctica. I stood on the icebreaker’s deck and watched the city of Punta Arenas, Chile fade into the sunset. The Laurence M. Gould (LMG), a 230-foot long research vessel (R/V), would be my floating home for the next several days until we reach land again at Palmer Station. Unlike the wooden ships of past polar explorers, the LMG has an ice-enforced hull that can handle one foot level of ice with continuous forward motion in polar seas.

As we made our way through the Straights of Magellan to the east, then south along the coast of Argentina and then onward toward Cape Horn, I couldn’t help but to take in the remarkable scenery from the bow.

Pictured: The LMG’s bow is the most forward part of the ship.


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Sooty Albatrosses


Image Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drake_Passage


On day #7, we left the protective shores of South America and headed south into the infamous Drake Passage. This section of water extends about 1,000 km (600 miles) between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands. Here, the unimpeded flow of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current  carries a huge volume of water through the Passage and around the continent of Antarctica.

The Antarctic Circumpolar Current flows clockwise with a force approximately 600 times the flow of the Amazon River! This, coupled with the propensity for high winds in the region, can cause rough seas, and conditions sometimes referred to as the “Drake Shake.” Conversely, the “Drake Lake” is occasionally encountered when the passage is calm.

Considered a “rite of passage” for voyagers to the Antarctic, it takes approximately two days (Day #7-Day #8) to make the crossing, pending weather conditions. Check out highlights of my journey across the Drake Passage below. Was it a Lake or Shake?




Polar Ponder: Identify these main parts of a ship. Why would it be important to learn ship terminology for an Antarctic Expedition?


Lawrence M Gould Update

Hello ‘Fly’ fans,

I just wanted to give you an update on Natalie’s whereabouts.  She and the Fly team are about 417 km from Palmer.  If you click on the map of the LMG location it will show an updated position:

I’ve also added a pic below so you can see their path so far (as of 9-10 am EST, Jan 02).

LMG postion 2 Jan 1400 UTC

LMG postion 2 Jan 1400 UTC

To the Bottom of the World

The Laurence M. Gould (LMG) Research Vessel at the Pier in Punta Arenas, Chile

On Friday December 30, 2016, I officially moved aboard the Laurence M. Gould (LMG) icebreaker ship for the final leg of my journey to Antarctica. My heart felt heavy saying goodbye to my husband, since we would be apart for six weeks, including New Years, my birthday, and Valentines Day. I am also leaving behind our two dogs, and I know they will be missing the extra belly rubs and long walks while I’m away. Here’s a big THANK YOU to my husband for taking care of our furry family in my absence.

Saying goodbye to my husband











On the other hand, I also felt nervous and exhilarated. The LMG would be at sea for about five days. Two of these days will be spent crossing the roughest waters in the world. The Drake Passage is a body of water between Cape Horn, Chile and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica.

Image Credit: www.euroargo-edu.org

The Drake Passage is where the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern oceans converge, creating a roaring mix of currents – similar to a washing machine. This means that 30 foot waves are not uncommon in the Drake Passage.The intensity of the Drake Passage depends on the variable conditions at sea.

Check out the video below of a Russian vessel crossing the Drake Passage between Ushuaia (Argentina) and the Antarctic Peninsula. The vessel was hit by a storm sailing north that lasted two days with 14m waves! This extreme example is known as the “Drake Shake.” However, this passenger (yours truly) is hoping for a much smoother crossing, similarly called a “Drake Lake.”


Gateway to Antarctica


Day #4: Preparations for my final leg of travel to Palmer Station, Antarctica were in full swing. I felt relieved that I had made it this far (7,333 miles!) with no major delays or complications. However, I still had the most daunting part of the trip still ahead of me: the voyage across the Southern Ocean to reach our final polar destination.

As a port city on the southernmost tip of Chile, Punta Arenas is a prime location for accessing Antarctica. Known as “the Antarctic Gate,” a number of organizations, including the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), rely on the town’s ocean access to support their operations. 


The Nathaniel B. Palmer (NBP) at the port in Punta Arenas.

The USAP brings two of its ice-capable research vessels, the Nathaniel B. Palmer (NBP) and the Laurence M. Gould (LMG), to Punta Arenas. From there they carry out research cruises and transport people and cargo to and from Palmer Station, the U.S. research base on the Antarctic Peninsula. 



View of the pier and warehouse.


Earlier in the day, I got fitted for extreme weather clothes (EWC) and accessories at the pier’s warehouse. This gear is provided by the National Science Foundation to prepare participants for the Antarctic climate. Since Palmer Station is a mild region of the Antarctic, I chose a variety of waterproof layers to keep warm and dry for the Antarctic fieldwork ahead. 

Later in the evening, I moved on board the final mode of transportation: an icebreaker research vessel. The Laurence M. Gould (LMG) is a 240 foot ship that works primarily in the Antarctic Peninsula region, transporting support and science personnel and cargo to and from Palmer Station and supporting research throughout the peninsula area. Check out these ship highlights below!

antarctic_gate       thumb_IMG_6923_1024                          thumb_IMG_6933_1024                          thumb_IMG_6927_1024                          thumb_IMG_6928_1024                          thumb_IMG_6940_1024                          lmg_id       bridge_outside       bridge_front       thumb_IMG_6934_1024                          thumb_IMG_6988_1024                          thumb_IMG_6987_1024                          thumb_IMG_6981_1024                        thumb_IMG_6982_1024                         thumb_IMG_6991_1024                      thumb_IMG_6990_1024                        thumb_IMG_6968_1024            thumb_IMG_6970_1024             thumb_IMG_6979_1024                  thumb_IMG_6925_1024
The Antarctic Gate


Read and Walk to Antarctica

screen-shot-2017-01-11-at-3-54-42-pmDear Elementary Schools, 

Show your support for our Antarctic Research Expedition by participating in the “Read and Walk to Antarctica” project!

This school-wide project challenges elementary students to read books or do physical activity that equates to the 8,000 mile (12,900 km) journey to the bottom of the world. Not only do students strengthen their bodies, but also their understanding of science, geography, technology, and healthy living.

Here’s how it works:

STEP 1: From January to March 2017, students dedicate time to “reading” and “moving” in support of the Antarctic Research Team’s incredible journey to the bottom of the world.  Teachers send home the Read and Walk Letter and Footprints (stapled together) with students to officially launch the project.


Read and Walk Letter

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    Read and Walk Footprints












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    STEP #2: Continue to follow A Fly on the Pole’s blog to learn about the research team’s travels and polar adventures.




STEP #3: Collect the students’ footprints to track their progress.


Crestwood Primary School created a wall display in the cafeteria.


Waypoints such as Dallas and Santiago help students track their progress.










STEP #4: When you reach your final goal (Palmer Station, Antarctica), REPLY to this blog post! Schools will receive special recognition from the Antarctic Research Team for their 8,00 mile accomplishment. We look forward to hearing from you!

For more details on the project, check out this feature article in NSTA’s Science and Children.