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The team at work extracting nematodes from the soil samples. Left to right: Josh Heward, Andy Thompson, Scott George, Byron Adams. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

The team at work extracting nematodes from the soil samples. Left to right: Josh Heward, Andy Thompson, Scott George, Byron Adams. Photo by: Walter Andriuzzi

With our short field season in McMurdo already drawing to a close, the team is having a busy time in the Crary Lab in McMurdo. Collecting the samples from the Dry Valleys is only the first step of our job. Down here, most of our working time – actually, most of our time awake – is spent in the lab. Our main tasks after the field missions consist in extracting* and identifying the invertebrates from the soil samples, and running analyses on the physical and chemical properties of the soil. Then, after entering and proofing all the data we have collected into electronic format, we prepare the biological and soil samples for storage and shipping to our labs in the States. Finally, after all work is done, we store our equipment and unused disposables for next year, do a thorough inventory for both our own and the Crary Lab staff’s records, and clear the lab.

With this busy agenda it is easy sometimes to forget the broader picture, but almost daily we have a meeting to keep track of the season’s objectives, and update each other on the progress with the specific tasks. We also find the time to talk about the science – many a fertile idea for a new study has sprung from conversations during mealtime or at the coffee bar.

Scottnema lindsayae left) and Eudorylaimus sp. right) extracted from Dry Valleys soil. Can you identify the sex of this Scottnema? Photo by: Byron Adams.

Adult Scottnema lindsayae left) and juvenile Eudorylaimus sp. right) extracted from Dry Valleys soil. Can you identify the sex of this Scottnema? Photo by: Byron Adams.

Some of our team members may have never seen a live nematode under the microscope before coming here, but by the end of the first or second week all of us are able to identify the nematodes from the Dry Valleys. By the end of the season, some of us will have counted several thousands of nematodes, plus a few rotifers and tardigrades. It is not at all an unpleasant or dull task – to some of us it’s the best part of the whole process (after the field trips). Not only is there life in the soils of the Dry Valleys, but there is also beauty – or at least, interesting action. Check out these two short videos that Josh, our PolarTrec associate, has taken of a rotifer and a tardigrade.

And here is a time-lapse photography video of the team extracting animals from the soil, also by Josh.

 

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The Antarctic Treaty reserves Antarctica as a protected place for scientific investigation. Because of this special designation and all the important work that happens at the bottom of the world, the research stations are often visited by politicians who are responsible for writing environmental legislation or influencing environmental policy.

Diana and Prince Albert

This year a PRINCE visited the station! Albert Grimaldi (better known as Albert II, Sovereign Prince of Monaco) visited Antarctica to meet with scientists studying climate change. He is very curious about global warming and wants to understand how it is impacting the southernmost continent, and how this might affect the rest of the planet.

As part of his scientific tour of McMurdo, the prince visited our lab and checked out the worms under the microscope!
Prince Albert at the Microscope

Byron and Diana answered his questions about the ecology of the Dry Valleys, and they took the opportunity to stress the importance of our Antarctic research in understanding not only climate change, but complex interactions between soil animals and their environment that cannot be done anywhere else. He seemed very interested in our research and complimented us on all our hard work.
Ecology Lecture for the Prince

Mrs. Advani’s kindergarten class at McGraw World School in Fort Collins, Colorado asked us some questions about our work and what they have read on our blog.

What are the nematodes doing? – Brayden
When we look at the nematodes under the microscope, mostly it just looks like they wiggle. But here in Antarctica, nematodes have a very important job – they recycle! An ecosystem is not very different from a person who eats nutritious food, or a vehicle that uses expensive fuel; an ecosystem needs certain things in order to function properly. In a polar desert, a lot of things we might take for granted are in short supply, and the nematodes help the ecosystem get some of those important things that it needs, like carbon.

Why do the birds eat the trash? – Colin
The skua are very clever birds, Colin. They know that humans throw a lot of good food into the trash. They also know that it is much easier to get our food than to look for their own. Skua have very good eyesight, and they instantly recognize something that might have food in it, and they want it!

Skua

How do you discover the nematodes? – Abby
Nematodes are very small, and we cannot just look for them outside. First, we take a scoop of soil and bring it back to the lab. Here you can see Bishwa taking a soil sample.
New Channel
Then we put some in a plastic dish, fill it with water, and stir it around to get the nematodes away from the particles of soil. We pour the liquid through a sieve which lets all the water go through but catches the nematodes – like draining really tiny pasta! Karen is very good at this part, because she is very careful when she works with the nematodes. Here she is pouring the nematodes onto the sieve and washing them into the tube.
IMG_0188IMG_0190
Then we look through a microscope and count what we find! This part takes a long time, because we have to count them very carefully. Diana is the best and fastest at counting, but the rest of us are pretty good, too. Here, Uffe and Bishwo count the nematodes.
Bishow and Uffe counting nematodes

Why did you make a menorah out of penguins? – Stephanie
We didn’t make it, but we liked to look at it while we at our dinner! The folks that live here come from all different backgrounds, and they want to share a bit of their culture with their friends and coworkers. Because the penguin is symbolic of Antarctica they probably thought it would be a cute thing to do, and we all thought so too!

Why do you look at nematodes? – Sarah
That’s a really good question, Sarah! We’re curious about how the nematodes influence their environment. This is a really special place, where the BIGGEST land animal is only a millimeter in length. Do you know how small that is?? It’s teeny! Also, we don’t have any plants out here, except for moss, so the little animals that are in the soil down here do a lot of the work that would normally be done by bigger, more complex organisms in other soils. For example, the soil in your backyard will contain plant roots and worms and decomposing leaves and beetles and other assorted bits and pieces of organic matter (stuff that is or used to be alive). We just don’t have that! So we study the nematodes, rotifers and tardigrades to figure out how they do all the work themselves. This tells us a lot about how the ecosystem works, and we can use this information to help us understand other ecosystems.

What do you eat? – Gabi
When we are “in town” (McMurdo Station) we eat in the galley, and it is very similar to school cafeteria food – sloppy food in big trays that we serve to ourselves. In “the field” we eat dehydrated meals or, if we’re lucky, we stay at a field camp where someone will cook for us. Nick was VERY happy when Ana made spaghetti for us after a long day of hard work.
Hungry Field Hands
Also, we don’t get fresh food as often as you can at home, so we are happy when we see ANYTHING green, like lettuce. Karen is a vegetarian, and she is getting VERY tired of tofu stir-fry in peanut sauce. She says that when she gets home she’s only going to eat salad.

How do you get all the clothes on? – Francesca
The same way that you get all your winter clothes on – very carefully and in a particular order. First the thermal underwear and socks, then the fleece layer, then the windbreak layer, then the boots, hat, neck gaiter, mittens and parka.

Where do nematodes get food? – Mackenzie
The nematodes get their food from the soil. Believe it or not, nematodes are not the smallest things that live here! They eat tiny, single-celled organisms called microbes. Microbes are very abundant here, and contain a lot of nutrition, so when the nematodes eat them, they help the ecosystem to recycle some of that good stuff!

Where do you sleep? – Emma
When we are in McMurdo we sleep in dormitories, similar to those found on college campuses. When we are in the dry valleys, we like to sleep in tents, but sometimes we have to sleep on the ground.
Karen's Tent at F6
It gets cold at night, so we have nice warm sleeping bags to snuggle in, but we often have to sleep in all our clothes just to keep warm!
Karen's Sleep Kit
But no matter how cold it gets, you really can’t beat the view! Look at that!
View from Karen's Tent

Why did that guy have a bag on his head? (in the pictures on the blog) – Cloey
Bishwo is an outstanding young scientist who we think will someday be a famous researcher. He is also a really funny guy, and he let us put colored tape all over him, and give him a bag for a hat, and then take his picture. We were just being silly, because science is very hard work, and sometimes you just have to get a little silly. For example, one day we all decided to pretend we were in Hawaii. It was Aloha Saturday!
Aloha Saturday
See? Scientists are fun, too!

We study nematodes. Nematodes live in the soil. In order to count them and identify them, we have to get them OUT of the soil, efficiently and quickly, taking care not to kill or injure them. This is not easy, but we are professionals.

First we weigh out the fresh soil (we also weigh out a bit to put in the drying oven to determine soil moisture) into a plastic tri-pour container. This is typically Ed’s job.

Ed weighing soil

Then we give the nematodes a bath. We add water to the soil, stir it gently, pour it through a set of sieves (the top sieve catches the large soil particles, the bottom sieve catches the nematodes and fine silts and clays) and wash them into a centrifuge tube. Diana and Breana like this job the most.

Breana sieving out nematodes

The tube containing the sample is centrifuged for five minutes. This is Byron’s job. Centrifuging forces all the worms and remaining soil into the bottom of the tube, creating a pellet. The liquid is poured off into a waste jar, saturated sugar water is added to the tube and it is mixed. Nematodes do not like the sugar, and they become suspended in the thick liquid. The tube is centrifuged again, this time only for a minute. All the soil is spun into the bottom of the tube, and the nematodes are floating in the sugar water.

Byron centrifuging nematodes

The tube is passed back to Breana or Diana, who pour the liquid through another fine screen, carefuly not to get any of the soil from the bottom of the tube onto the screen. The nematodes are washed gently with water and into another tube. This technique allows us to get a clean sample. That way, when we are looking under the microscope, we don’t have to move soil particles out of the way to see the soil animals (along with nematodes, we also find tardigrades, rotifers and the occasional mite). At the scope, we count the number of each species that we find, including whether they are male, female, or juvenile, and whether they are dead or alive.

Counting Worms

The only problem with this method is that it creates a lot of washing up to do. Luckily, Ed is VERY good at washing dishes, and also at stacking them so that they all fit on the drying table. He is the only person who can do this without toppling them over. perhaps he missed his calling as an architect?

Tri-pour tower

Everyone is back, after a long delay. Ed and Breana managed to leave the ice in mid-February, and after brief holidays in New Zealand (Breana) and Australia (Ed), they are back in Colorado, and working hard.

In the past few months, our lab community has changed. Sanjay accepted a job in Denver, and Karen, a PhD student from Washington, has joined our group. Also in the lab are Sarah Atheron, an undergraduate honors student working on an ahydrobiosis project, and Lauren Larson, an undergraduate pre-vet student who takes care of our nematode cultures. Grace Li is the manager of our brand new lab in the Biology Department. We christened the new lab by having a party for Biology and NREL faculty, staff and students.

While Ed and Breana were still in Antarctica, Diana flew to The Netherlands as a guest lecturer for a soil ecology course. She has since attended an advisory committee meeting of POPNet in York, England, and flew to Mexico to meet with with university officials in Yucatan to enhance collaboration with Colorado State University.

Our seminar series, “Antarctic Research and Colorado Front Range: A Celebration of the International Polar Year,” has been a huge success! Organized in honor of the IPY, each month we have invited a speaker to Fort Collins to give a public lecture on Antarctic research and life on the ice. These public lectures have been very well attended, and Diana gave the most recent lecture, on April 17th, entitled, “The Hot Scoop on Cold Soils; The Dry Valleys of Antarctica.”

Ed had two papers published, one in Functional Ecology entitled, “The influence of belowground herbivory and defoliation of a legume on nitrogen transfer to neighboring plants,” and one in Ecosystems entitled, “Unique similarity of faunal communities across aquatic-terrestrial interfaces in a polar desert ecosystem.” Diana, Jeb, Byron and Ross are co-authors on the Ecosystems paper.

Breana accidentally landed the job of chief-SIPer, after completing the SIP and submitting it to Raytheon without any troubles. SIP stands for Support Information Package, and it is a lengthy list our research intentions for the year and the materials we will need to do our research in Antarctica. The SIP must be turned in 8 months in advance, making it a very stressful but important document. Everything has to go on the SIP, from the number of helicopter hours we will use to the number of sleeping bags we need, and even the exact number of scintillation vials we think we will need. it’s hard to plan that far ahead, but the logistics of doing research in Antarctica demand it.

At the end of April, Diana, Ed, Breana, Karen, Byron and Jeb will attend the biennial Soil Ecology Society Meeting in Moab, UT. Breana, Jeb and several of Byron’s students will present posters about their research in Antarctica or on Antarctic organisms. Ed will present work he has done in the San Juan Mountains on forest soils. Accompanying us will be Phil Murray,; a soil ecologist from the UK. Diana, Phil, Breana, Ed and Karen will meet Jeb, Byron and his students in Arches National Park for a bit of camping before the meeting. One of Byron’s students, Adler Dillman, was part of our Antarctic team in 2005-2006, and we will be excited to see him again.

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