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February 2013 Archives

BLOG 9-1, View from the Helicopter_small.jpgBLOG 9-4, Kristi, Nita and Alia_small.jpgMicroscopeBack in the helo, and back into the mountains for another soil sampling siege – I’m just about convinced that I am James Bond. Antarctica New Zealand has provided some impressive helicopter logistics, orchestrated by Barry, the operations scheduler at Scott Base to get us to all the 75 sampling sites. It is most appreciated.

This time, it was team Blonde, not team Bond. And Kristi and I were specifically on an Invertebrate hunt, as we hiked back to main camp.

Kristi Bennet is a Masters student from the University of Waikato studying population genetics of springtails in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Springtails are the largest living terrestrial organism in Antarctica, measuring in at a whopping 1-3mm. The only other visible living invertebrates are Mites. These are the ‘lions and tigers’ of Antarctica, top of the food chain - the mega fauna! Springtails are found worldwide and are the world's most abundant soil arthropod. They have a long evolutionary history and are one of the first arthropods that show up in the fossil record. There are 3 species found in the Dry Valleys, Antarcticinella monoculata, Neocryptopygus nivicolus and Gompheocephalous hodgsoni. During this expedition Antarcticinella monoculata was found, for the first time since the 1960s. The current hypothesis for their distribution is that they are remnants from Gondwanaland and have survived the once warmer continent becoming a polar ice cap.

Hunting for Springtails and Mites is a fine art. They have very particular places they like to hang out. They are found on the mountain peaks, in areas with some water, where snow naturally accumulates. They like to live under flat black rocks, sheltered from the harsh winds by larger boulders, on north facing slopes, with good school zoning and close to the shops…. For us, it means spending lots of time on our hands and knees turning over rocks. So I am a glaciologist by trade, and until this point the field groups had had very little luck in finding any mites or springtails. It was when I finally turned over a rock to see tiny red mites scuttling across the underside of the rock, that I truly understood the microbiologists passion and yelled at Kristi “oh oh oh, I've found some mites!!!”.

Next we had to collect the mites. A specially designed aspirator was used. They are sucked up through a tube, and to prevent eating them, they are caught on a filter and fall into a plastic vile. Mites and springtails are also found in the soil samples. To separate them from the soil, in the lab the soil is mixed with a sugar solution and any organic matter, including the mites and springtails floats out. They are then scooped out, preserved in ethanol and taken back to New Zealand for genetic analysis.

By the end of the field time, the total count of springtails found was approximately 100, and 300 mites were also collected. Needless to say, Kristi was pretty happy with the count, and will be spending time in the lab, studying the genetics of these springtails.

Nita Smith.

The view from the helicopter
Centre: Kristi, Nita and Alia
Bottom: Kristi looking at the Springtails under the microscope

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Camp lifePrime Minister takes first sample for AGArnzTABS team with the Prime MinisterLog book record: “Quiet day, but a bloke called John popped in for a cuppa”

After three big field days with people scampering all over the landscape: climbing peaks, navigating ridges, rock hoping granite and weaving through dolerite boulder fields we were all due a rest day. With the whole team back at Main Camp, we had our ear to the radio awaiting news from the helicopter that Prime Minister John Key was on his way to our camp for a visit.

Camp days consist of a variety of occupations. Coffee is drunk, soil samples are processed, bread is baked, yoga is done, water is collected, scones are baked and the crew generally relaxes and gears up for the next onslaught of sampling across the mountains. With 14 people in the one communal tent, the art of dancing around each other in coordinated chaos is finely tuned. 

“K020. K020. This is India Delta Echo. Do you copy?”

“India Delta Echo, this is K020. Go ahead”

“K020 we are flying in over Bull Pass, we will be on the ground in 4 minutes. Over”

“Copy that India Delta Echo. The wind here is 5knots from the west. See you in 4 minutes”

Our radio call sign is K020, and India Delta Echo is the name of Helicopter. Out of the helicopter climbed Lou Sanson, the CEO of Antarctica New Zealand, followed by Prime Minister John Key and his wife Bronagh for a short visit to camp.

With the help of Professor Craig Cary, the Prime Minister took the first biodiversity sample for the new Antarctic Genetic Archive (AGAr), numbered MDV 0001.  

AGAr, is a tool to link all biodiversity research being conducted in Antarctica, by housing a DNA archive. Once collected, this will enable researchers from all countries to gain access to valuable DNA samples without the necessity of going to the remote locations. This enhances biodiversity research worldwide by making data collection more efficient, and reducing the overall environmental impact on the pristine and fragile Antarctic environment. This continent scale biodiversity archive will be the first of its kind in the world. The archive has the capacity to hold 1 million DNA samples and can be contributed to by any scientists working in Antarctica. Technology now allows scientists to collect, extract and store DNA very efficiently. Once established, the archive will be available to the research community across the world. 

Then on for a cuppa, and some fresh cinnamon pinwheel scones. I had been perfecting the art of the camp scone – and the Prime Minister seemed to like them.

Nita Smith.

Busy camp life
Centre: Prime Minister John Key takes the first sample for AGAr
Bottom: The nzTABS team with the Prime Minister

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