Cold Feet

A Teacher's Tale

tardigrade

A Brief Abstract:

The aim is to explore the distribution and abundance of microfauna able to survive in the harsh environments of the Ellsworth mountains. Recent studies have shown that the number of organisms capable of this are few and that several are unique to the Ellsworth region. One of the most striking are the tardigrada, which are able to enter a state of suspended metabolism called cryptobiosis. Their durability in this condition is astonishing. As well as the amazing tardigrada (including at least one species unique to Antarctica) there are rotifers and flagellates. There is the (slight?) possibility that other invertebrates such as the microscopic mites, nematodes and springtails found elsewhere on the Continent may be encountered. Since so little research of this kind seems to have been conducted in this particular region, there is the real hope that new and valuable knowledge can be uncovered by any well-prepared study.
It is hoped that some microscopical investigation can be carried out in the field but for full characterisation and identification it will be necessary to bring back samples. Much help and advice has been offered by Sandra McInnes and Peter Convey of the British Antarctic Survey

A more detailed outline:
There’s No Way to Degrade a Tardigrade
(
An Investigation of the Microfauna of the Ellsworth Mountain Region)

What creature can survive being heated to 151 oC for several minutes or chilled close to absolute zero (-272.8 oC) for several days? Could this be the same creature that can lose 99% of its normal moisture and then be revived to health and vigour again with a drop of water? Indeed, the same creature that can survive pressures many times above normal atmospheric pressure or the vacuum of outer space? Perhaps this is the same beastie able to endure 570,000 Rads of X-radiation; when 500 Rads would be fatal to a Human? You have to be tough to survive in the harshest environment on the Planet and nothing seems tougher than the cuddly Tardigrade or “Water Bear”.

The aim of the project is to explore the distribution and abundance of microfauna able to survive in the harsh environments of the Ellsworth mountains. Recent studies have shown that the number of organisms capable of this are few and that several are unique to the Ellsworth region. As well as the amazing tardigrada (including at least one species that appears to be unique to Antarctica) there are rotifers and flagellates. There may also be other invertebrates yet to be found such as the microscopic mites, nematodes and springtails found elsewhere on the Continent. Since so little research of this kind seems to have been conducted in this particular region, there is the real hope that new and valuable knowledge can be uncovered by any well-prepared study.
Each creature that survives here must find the answer to the most shocking environmental insults to survival. Such survivors also represent only the top layer of an ecosystem that must include lichens, algae and bacteria. While the large animals and birds of the edges of the Continent are primarily marine dependent and fairly well studied, this unique and extraordinary micro-ecosystem is waiting to be explored. Just as exploration of the black smokers of the deep oceans has revealed a totally unexpected ecosystem, so the unique variety of creatures that can survive in this inhospitable place should give us a better understanding of life on Planet Earth.

The small scale of the creatures means that using simple collection and microscopic techniques it should be possible to build up a better picture of the microfauna of the Ellsworth range. The microscopic nature of the organisms means that samples can easily be returned to the UK for expert evaluation and identification. Another appealing aspect to the project is the fact that the techniques used can be readily linked with studies of a similar kind that can be carried out by students in the school laboratory. Microscopic protists (single-celled animals and plants) and other small organisms can be studied using the classic methods of hay infusion and pond water collection. An appreciation of the similarities and differences between these and the Antarctic microfauna can be explored from material and data collected by the Fuchs Foundation expedition.

The links to Amy Rogers’ study of the Lichens of the Ellsworth will add another layer to our understanding of how this unique ecosystem functions, since the sites of both studies can be mapped together.