More Science Than You Can Shake a Stick At (Not That You Would Want To… Well, Okay, Maybe Just A Little)

Last week’s Science Sunday lecture was a fascinating affair on many levels… a scientist studying the microbial mats on the bottom of some ice-covered lakes in the nearby Dry Valleys gave a presentation. Microbial mats are the bacterial carpeting of the bottom of the lake. What you or I would call “goo.” It just so happens that the structure and growing patterns of the goo is suspiciously close to fossilized remnants of primordial goo that showed up on this planet a couple billion years ago. The goo mats here aren’t that old, but she is investigating whether there is a relation that can help us better understand how the original primordial goo lived, grew and evolved.

That in itself is, to a science geek like myself anyway, pretty damn cool.

But wait, there’s more.

The lake she’s been studying for a number of seasons is getting deeper. It is fed by Taylor Glacier in the Dry Valleys – the glacier is melting and there is no outlet for the lake, which is also under six meters (roughly 20 feet) of permanent ice cover. The goo mats have evolved to live in extreme low light conditions, and just enough light was filtering through the ice for them to photosynthesize. As the lake gets deeper, however, the lower levels of goo are dying because they are now too far underwater to get even the minimal light they need to survive. Sad, yes, and my heart goes out to the goo colonies lost forever, but at the same time, they are leaving a record of how they die and begin to decay that is helping the scientists figure out the relation to the much older fossilized goo.

There are also a number of logistical issues that need to be considered… These lakes (they’re going to start diving in a new one nearby this season) are all under permanent ice cover. The water within them, and the goo, really hasn’t been disturbed for eons. Nothing else lives in the lakes, another reason the goo colonies are so scientifically significant… because nothing has been foraging on them or even resting on their surface, their entire pattern of life (and death) has been preserved.

That raises a number of ethical issues… how do you go drilling into the ice, diving down under it and taking samples without introducing contaminants? Sure, your dive suit may look clean, but introducing even one or two single-cell critters could wreak havoc on the pristine environment. If the critters survive, of course, in the cold, dark water.

It took me a while as the scientist was speaking to take in all the minutiae of studying goo in the lakes of Antarctica because, quite frankly, I was distracted by the very first slide she showed. It listed the names and affiliations of the team members and sources of funding.

The team leader is from SETI. The team’s funding comes from NASA’s Department of Exobiology.

Hold the phone….. this is about aliens?!?

Turns out the scientist herself, among a number of goo-related projects she’s got going, is also working with NASA on the next Rover mission, retained as a goo expert who can look at the stuff they find on Mars and help figure out if it is goo-worthy or not. In other words, while it is all well and good and fascinating to look at the goo mats of Lakes Joyce and Vanda at the bottom of the world, they’re only getting money to do so beause the Men In Black want someone around when they start getting samples from the Rover to answer the question “this goo… is it anything?”

On an extra-terrestrially related note, a few people have told me that in July, something came streaking down from the sky and hit the sea ice some ways off Hut Point, that because of its location no one could get to it in winter, and that NASA is sending tons of people down to retrieve it this summer, which is why we have more scientists than ever this season. Hmm. The official story is that a transformer blew up, but one of the women I work with claims her boyfriend, who wintered over, saw the whole thing and it was no transformer. She went on to say that he also has it on good authority (though she could not provide sourcing) that “the CIA and FBI took over a remote Russian base and are using it for something,” so I’m not sure how credible he is.

There are also all kinds of rumors about what’s going on at an old field camp that’s being re-opened this season after years of dormancy… it’s going to be a huge camp of more than 70 people and officially they are looking for dinosaur bones, which in itself is way wicked cool, but there is much murmuring that the bones they are looking for are not of the dinosaur variety.

If you ask me, someone’s been watching “The Thing” too much.

But all of the rumors and scintillating gossip can’t, in all honesty, compare with the thrill of coming face to face with a Trematomus bernacchii.

Yesterday, Wednesday, there was supposed to be a special midweek science lecture from the penguin people. These scientists are looking at the way emperor penguins swim and the presenter, I’ve heard from veterans who’ve seen him in seasons past, is exceptionally good. So two of my roommates and I trooped down to Crary Lab, Science Central down here, to hear his talk.

When we got there, we learned it had been cancelled… the team was out amongst the penguins on the ice and bad weather made it impossible for them to return to base, so they were camping out for the night.

I know what you’re thinking: wait, the weather was too awful to travel, so they had to camp out in it all night??

Yes.

Sidenote: while the weather was a bit bleak – gray and windy – in town, it was still Condition Three, so, having the day off, I walked over to Scott Base to buy something at the store. Mostly it was an excuse to have some me time and be able to sing along as loud as I wanted to Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” and The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” without raising any eyebrows.

Anyway, disappointed in the cancellation, we wandered around Crary for a while. One of my roommates had taken the weekly tour they give (alas, it is on a day I have to work) and had met a couple of the scientists, including three marine biologists who were prepping one of the tanks for an experiment. We wandered in and they were terrific at taking time out to chat with us about what they were doing and what they had in the touch tank.

While the tank room is (or will be, as it is still early in the season) full of Serious Experiments, they also have a small aquarium of stuff they’ve pulled from the sea floor that you can, yes, touch.

I felt kind of bad for the creatures they had… regardless of how much cognition you’re capable of, it must be pretty disorienting to go from dark water to a brightly-lit room. It’s all in the name of science, I suppose, and it didn’t stop me from sticking my hand in the cold water and poking at a neon yellow sea slug, a stripey orange sea anemone and several exceedingly large worms that were the color and texture of tongues. There was also a rather feisty purple scallop that was zipping about. I always thought of scallops as stationary, barnacle-like creatures, but no. They are highly locomotive, especially, apparently, when plucked from their home and stuck in a touch tank were annoying bipeds keep poking at them.

In the tank the marine biologists were prepping, they planned to raise larvae in tanks of varying pH levels in an attempt to determine how the increasing acidification of the oceans may impact the life and growth cycle of these species. Poor larvae. But this is how SCIENCE advances, after all.

There were several other tanks, though all but one was empty. I walked over to meet the lab’s other resident, an Emerald rock cod. I thought it was in distress, because it had wedged itself between the side of the tank and a piece of mesh that covered the filtration system and was motionless, with its large head sticking halfway out of the water.

“I think your fish is stuck,” I said, with appropriate alarm.

“Nah. It’s just lazy. They’re a lazy fish,” one of the marine biologists assured me.

Turns out the Emerald rock cod, or Trematomus bernacchii, don’t like to move much. They do, however, like to chill with their heads hanging out of tight places, which makes sense since they are ambush hunters.

And I do mean chill. Like all the fish down here, they have evolved to have a protein in their blood that is essentially anti-freeze. And they handle the heat even worse than I do… they will die from heat in water that is warmer than 42 degrees Fahrenheit.

While the fish was just wedged there, staring upward with its mouth out of the water, I bent down and looked it in the eye, close enough to see its little teeth and the tiny, worm-like parasite growing in its mouth and flopping lazily on its tongue as its gills worked rhythymically. It seemed the fish was staring back, though that could have just been my fanciful thinking. I did wonder, though… is it really not in distress? Is it bored? Does it care? Is it even aware of the large biped leaning down inches from its mouth, the same biped who was just poking that irritable scallop a few feet away?

After a minute or so, the fish sank to the bottom of the tank… still alive and apparently unflustered, breathing normally but otherwise motionless. Just looking, apparently, for a new spot to chill. One, perhaps, where it could not be poked.

Sea Ice Runway (foreground) and Royal Society Mountains on an October morning

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One thought on “More Science Than You Can Shake a Stick At (Not That You Would Want To… Well, Okay, Maybe Just A Little)

  1. OMG! I *knew* it! I *knew* you were going to find yourself in the midst of an X-Files episode! 🙂

    (Btw, next time warn us if there’s going to be any mention of worm-like parasites. *shudder*.)

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