In search of life on nunataks

This summer, a team of four SAEF scientists travelled into the vast wilderness of Antarctica in search of its tiniest life. Once found, these microscopic creatures will enable the team to answer big questions about the evolution of the continent’s landscape and biodiversity. 

With the support of White Desert, the team travelled to Dronning Maud Land to conduct fieldwork in the Schirmacher Oasis and Holtedahl Mountains. Both regions feature so-called “islands in the ice”, ice-free rocky outcrops and mountain peaks that tower above the surrounding white landscape. 

Less than 1% of the continent is ice-free, and these areas are hotspots for Antarctic biodiversity, including microbes, invertebrates, moss and lichen. But scientists don’t yet fully understand what species live there and how they have adapted to survive in such extreme conditions, especially as the continent’s climate and environment have changed over millennia. 

But understanding this is one of the keys to their protection and survival. 

O springtail, where art thou?

While Dr Amy Liu’s team enjoyed the stunning scenery, she was on her hands and knees with her face to the ground searching for springtails. These tiny invertebrates are 1 – 3 mm in length and when disturbed can jump considerable distances due to the tiny spring beneath their abdomen. 

They are found on every continent on Earth, but there is currently no data to confirm whether they live in this particular region of Antarctica. 

Amy’s search for springtails was directed to areas where there was water, moss, algae or lichen which offer food and habitat. She flipped over flat rocks to see if there were any hiding underneath or stared intently into samples of water to see if they were floating amongst the algae. 

“I turned many rocks and there were no springtails to be found,” Amy explains. 

“I will record the absence data with locations and habitat information in our database. Knowing where they are absent is equally as important as knowing where they do occur.”

This is because Amy and her team can compare where springtails are found, with reconstructions of how the ice has advanced and retreated over millennia to better understand how life has evolved as the environment and climate have changed around it. Understanding this could be key to predicting how it will respond in the future. 

Collecting all the dirt on Antarctic bacteria

Meanwhile, microbiologists Dr Sophie Holland and Dr Rachael Lappan came to study the microbes that live in the soil to understand what species live there (taxonomic diversity) and what they can do (functional diversity). 

“We are particularly interested in bacteria that can “live on air”, or use trace atmospheric gases to meet their energy needs,” Sophie explains. 

The pair collected soil samples and carried out in-field gas experiments to measure the amount of gases the microbes in the soil consume. This involved feeding them hydrogen, methane and carbon monoxide and testing gas samples over a couple of days to see if the microbes were consuming the gases. 

Over three weeks, the team collected almost 300 soil samples from 31 sites which they will bring back to the lab for genetic analysis. 

“We’ll extract and sequence the DNA from each sample to study the microbial community, test their capacity to use trace atmospheric gases as an energy source, and also see how they respond to simulated future climate conditions,” Sophie explains. 

Keeping SAEF scientists safe

Antarctica is not a place where you should do fieldwork without someone familiar with how to get you and all your gear to the continent and then ensure you survive its harsh climate. 

The team was fortunate to be led by SAEF’s senior logistics coordinator, Andy Cianchi who is a specialist in remote and emergency logistics and knows how to plan for and risk-manage all scenarios.

For almost 12 months in the lead-up to the expedition, Andy led the logistics planning and coordination in collaboration with the SAEF team and partners, including White Desert, a private-sector travel provider that also offers logistical support to Antarctic scientists. 

White Desert was engaged to provide the team with flights, accommodation, food and transport to and from remote field locations, enabling Andy to focus on ensuring the scientists were able to complete their fieldwork. 

“Daily planning meetings are held, where we review weather forecasts and access to resources like aircraft and vehicles. This determines the intentions for the day and following days which are shared through twice daily situation reports,” Andy explains. 

Dronning Maud Land

This expedition to the Dronning Maud Land has enabled SAEF to test scientific ideas in two completely different regions of Antarctica in the same season, as the program has also had scientists in the Bunger Hills with the Australian Antarctic Program. 

It has also enabled research to support planning for future expeditions, including scoping out potential sampling locations and assessing the terrain. 

For Dr Rachael Lappan, it was her first Antarctic expedition and she was struck by the silence and scale of the landscape. 

“Sitting still in the field, there is no noise and no scents, it’s very peaceful,” Rachael explains. 

“At night when camped on the ice you can hear the ice cracking and shifting as the temperature changes, which somehow feels both ominous and calming. With no trees or buildings for scale, you can see mountain ranges that look very close but are actually tens of kilometres away. It’s hard for a camera or your eyes to grasp the vastness of the land before you.”

While this great, white icy expanse and its tiniest creatures might be hard to grasp with the naked eye, some of SAEF’s best scientific minds are striving to decode and protect it.