Antarctica marine biology explorers embark on 2018 journey

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By: Alicia Rohan | University of Alabama at Birmingham

Marine biologists from the University of Alabama at Birmingham landed on the White Continent by way of Punta Arenas, Chile, for a research expedition. Over the next 16 weeks, the team of six explorers will spend the 2018 field season at Palmer Station researching the ecology of the very rich Antarctic seafloor communities and how important ecological interactions in those communities are structured through the production of chemical defenses against predation.

In previous and planned research, the group also studies dramatic ecological effects of climate change on marine life of the Antarctic Peninsula.

mcclintock amsler 2018

Jim McClintock, Ph.D., left, and Chuck Amsler, Ph.D. [Photo Credit: UAB]

“The seafloor communities we study are exceptionally rich with lush beds of large seaweeds, which support very dense assemblages of invertebrate animals,” said Chuck Amsler, Ph.D., professor in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences Department of Biology and co-leader of the expedition. “There are many experiments that can only be conducted in Antarctica. Our research is important to understanding these vibrant communities, and we use unique features of Antarctica as tools that allow us to learn things that are applicable worldwide but can best be studied there.”

The long-running team, which has been traveling on research expeditions to Palmer Station for 18 years, will focus their research on the continuation studies of the National Science Foundation-funded research program on the chemical ecology of Antarctic marine algae and invertebrates. Updates on their discoveries and life on Earth’s southernmost continent can be found on the UAB in Antarctica blog a few times each week.

“Marine research in Antarctica is both intellectually challenging and physically demanding,” said James McClintock, Ph.D., UAB Polar and Marine Biology Endowed Professor, also a co-leader of the expedition. “Our research continues to reveal the potential impacts of rapid climate warming on Antarctic marine organisms, as well as organismal responses to predicted near-future increases in carbon atmospheric dioxide absorbed by seawater, a process known as ocean acidification.”

The team will welcome North Carolina high school teacher Keith Smith to Antarctica for the last month of the trip. Smith, a science teacher at Freedom High School, will be traveling to Anvers Island, Antarctica, as part of the PolarTREC program that recruits teachers to participate in “hands-on field research experiences in the polar regions.” Smith will be able to take his knowledge learned in the research field back to his students and apply it to his work in the classroom.

Eighty-seven percent of the glaciers on the western Antarctic Peninsula are in rapid retreat. In recognition of the retreat of these glaciers, an Explorers Club Flag Expedition will be led by McClintock, a 2016 elected Fellow of the Explorers Club. These expeditions are a fundamental component of the Explorer Club mission to engage in scientific exploration and broadly share the results. The flag will be planted on Amsler Island to celebrate Charles and Maggie Amsler’s contributions to science, but also to bring attention to the fact that Amsler Island emerged from under the Marr Glacier in the geological equivalent of ‘the blink of an eye’ due to unprecedented climate warming.

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McClintock and Teddy bear: A member of Gardendale Elementary’s second-grade class, Henry the teddy bear, joins McClintock on his expedition to Antarctica. [Photo Credit: UAB]

Members of the 2018 expedition team include James McClintock; Chuck Amsler; Maggie Amsler, a research associate in the UAB Department of Biology; Michelle Curtis, a graduate research assistant from UAB; Sabrina Heiser, a graduate research assistant from UAB; and Cecilia Brothers, Ph.D., collaborating researcher and UAB alumna.

Unique facts about the team traveling on the journey include:

  • 76 previous trips to Antarctica collective on the team, with Curtis serving as the rookie this time around.
  • A total of 1,440 frigid research scuba dives in previous Antarctic expeditions (C. Amsler 848, M. Amsler 411, S. Heiser 181).
  • McClintock’s work in Antarctica in previous years earned him a distinction that few living people in the world have: a spot on the coast of Antarctica named McClintock Point in his honor by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names.
  • Maggie Amsler was on one of the first-ever manned submarine cruises to document the sea floor communities in Antarctica and is likely the first woman to make a submersible dive in Antarctica. Her deepest dive reached 1,001 meters depth, 25 times deeper than the deepest scuba dives the team routinely makes.
  • Maggie and Chuck Amsler were honored by the U.S. Board of Geographic names with the designation of Amsler Island, which is approximately half a mile from Palmer Station.
  • Travel companion Henry the teddy bear will take his farthest trip yet. Henry is part of Gardendale Elementary’s second-grade class project to see where his travels take him.

Originally published on the University of Alabama at Birmingham website.

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