I am norwegian doctor who worked as expedition doc on the Antarctic research station Troll for the summer season 2007-2008. NB: This blog is intended as a personal and ecological account from The Ice Planet - fully independent of the Norwegian Polar Institute, their official web page being: npweb.npolar.no
26 Feb 2008
Lucky last trip
Out again, looking for any non-bird animals I could find. I took the snowmobile roughly 8 km into the relatively warm area on the north side of the Jutulsessen massive,well shaded from the catabatic winds coming down from the plateau. There's two big frozen "lakes" here, never fully in a liquid state, still flattened over time because of partial icemelt and small creeks forming right below the blue ice surface. It's autumn now, never above freezing even at ground level, and I couldn't see any liquid water anywhere.
The picture shows the most sheltered bay in the lake.
I went to this particular spot because a norwegian biologist found some mites here in 1977.
Initially there was no sign of any vegetation, but I found two big garnet crystals instead.
When biology fails, geology comes to the rescue.
The whole area was covered in moraine, with some larger boulders in between. This lone sentry is a south polar skua, several of which were nesting in the area. Further down the slope I saw a skua chick, as big as its parents, just more fluffy, and still not able to fly, running off in panic as I closed in. The adults took turns screeching and charging towards me until I moved to a respectful distance.
I found some tiny patches of green algae under the rocks in the area, but no mites.
The search continued. I went on to the eastern lake, going all the way to into a narrow bay, surrounded by steep cliffs on three sides.
Here too I was greeted by skuas (one sitting on the big boulder in the distance), but this time I think they were mainly curious (/hungry - most of the antarctic petrels - their food - have left for the ocean already). I started climbind the scree slope, targeting the solid bedrock surface higher up the mountainside.
As the boulders grew bigger I discovered several small patces of moss (black dry dots in the picture. No, really!). This should be premium habitat for mites and springtails. 15 rocks and 2 wet eyes later - still nothing. Same with the next 5 moss fields. Where were the animals hiding? I had gone to the possibly most sheltered location in all of Jutulsessen, on a sunny day - extensive vegetation all over the place, at least by East Antarctic standards - and not a single mite.
I stepped on and broke a particularly crumbly rock, frost thaw being more to blame, and saw this green line extending 1 cm into the rock: algae following in the footsteps of the water.
100m up the cliffside, scree gave way to solid gneissic bedrock (dark rocks on the left). The barren slope above would not yield much vegetation, but here, at the very edge, I found what appeared to be the last patch of moss, and halfheartedly started flipping rocks over.
First and second rock - nothing. Third time lucky: as I turned it over, I immediately noticed something moving: a single mite trying to escape towards - who knows what, as I had just ruined it's whole world anyway. No time to worry about ethics - I quickly threw it into the etanol vial. 7 more mites (family? neighbours?) went the same way, and no more mites were to be found - not there or anywhere else in the area.
It kind of felt like I just discovered - then quickly wiped out - a single newfound colony of Martians.
Hopefully I won't feel the same way about eradicationg microscopic lifeforms back home, as being a doctor could turn into more of a moral dilemma than it really needs to.