Last night I had the good fortune to meet all 16 members of a large science group headed to Antarctica on our research ship. Unlike our group, they will not be disembarking at Palmer Station but will rather continue on aboard ship to sample selected oceanic stations at various locations along the Antarctic Peninsula.
It turns out that this impressive collection of chemical, physical and biological oceanographers representing several countries are all focusing their talents on one simple question: Where's the beef!?
Ever since I first began studying aspects of the reproductive and nutritional biology of Antarctic marine invertebrates (animals lacking a backbone) some 17 years ago, I have been intrigued by the fact that food (energy) in the form of plankton drifting down to the sea floor is only available to sea-floor dwelling animals for a very brief period of time during the austral summer (our winter back home). This is because only in the summer is there sufficient sunlight in Antarctica to allow planktonic plants (phytoplankton) to grow and reproduce.
How then, do animals living on the sea floor that are dependent upon plankton for food make it through the remainder of the year? In other words, where is the beef? How do they find sufficient energy to reproduce, or energy to grow or produce defensive chemicals to protect themselves? It turns out that our fellow scientists aboard ship are trying to answer this fundamental question that has perplexed Antarctic marine scientists for decades.
In brief, once we have been dropped off at Palmer Station, they plan to sample sea-floor animals from aboard ship using large buckets (box cores) that grab a portion of the sea bottom, or a big net (trawl) that is towed behind the ship. While taking these samples they have to be very careful not to be tossed from the deck into the freezing sea -- indeed they wear special ropes called "life lines" to prevent just this!
Up come sea cucumbers, sea stars, brittle stars, clams, worms, and a myriad of other invertebrates living on the soft sediments below. Then using radioisotopes and by measuring isotopic ratios they can determine whether sea-floor animals are eating the planktonic food that settles to the bottom once a year, and importantly, just how much of the year this food remains available for consumption.
Perhaps the big pulse of food that drops to the bottom during the Antarctic summer is sufficient to last the year? Or do these animals have special adaptations that allow them to reduce their energy needs during other portions of the year? Only time and the remarkable interdisciplinary efforts of these oceanographers will answer this riddle of the Antarctic sea.