Notes from the Field: Conducting Scientific Research in Antarctica

Hello from the bottom of the world!

As a zookeeper who spends a lot of my time in an “arctic” environment in the Detroit Zoo’s Arctic Ring of Life, I never thought I’d be lucky enough to find myself on either pole and yet, here I am in Antarctica. The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is engaged in ongoing field conservation work here alongside the Polar Oceans Research Group, studying the populations of penguins and other seabirds. As part of this project, I joined the team at the U.S. Palmer Research Station on the Antarctic peninsula to live and work for a month during the austral summer.

The route from Detroit is through Punta Arenas, Chile and then aboard the Laurence M. Gould icebreaker supply ship for a four-day ride across the rough seas of the Drake Passage. It was well worth it as we passed icebergs and whales along the way. Other passengers on the ship included biologists, a welder, an artist, IT personnel and others who had various goals once they reached the White Continent. The DZS’s mission for the next month is to take part in a three-person team involved in a long-term ecological research project studying Antarctic seabirds.

Weather permitting, we spend each day taking small boat rides to various islands to conduct as much fieldwork as the conditions will allow. This includes counting various species of birds and marine mammals, attempting to read ID band numbers (placed by biologists on birds’ legs to be able to keep track of age and location over the years) and adding GPS tags to different animals to monitor their movement.

The animals here are so removed from human activity that some species can actually be approached very closely by researchers and not fly away. All of this work is coordinated by the principal investigators and founders of the Polar Oceans Research Group, Dr. Bill Fraser and Donna Patterson-Fraser. Dr. Fraser is a well-respected polar ecologist and consulted on the design of the Detroit Zoo’s Polk Penguin Conservation Center.

Our research is indicating how populations of seabirds are being altered as a result of the changing climate. For example, adélie penguin populations have declined 80 percent in the area near Palmer Station, while more ice-independent species are moving into the area, such as gentoo penguins (one of four species of penguin who live at the Zoo). I’m so grateful to be here representing the Detroit Zoological Society and studying these incredible wildlife species alongside brilliant biologists.

– Flo Yates is a zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society who is taking part in a rare and extraordinary opportunity to conduct scientific research in Antarctica during the austral summer.

Education: Penguin Center offers Wealth of Learning Opportunities

The Polk Penguin Conservation Center is not only a state-of-the-art facility for penguins – the largest of its kind in the world – but it also contains a wealth of educational information about Antarctic explorers, modern-day researchers, and the incredible, fragile ecosystems at the bottom of the Earth.

During a visit to this incredible facility, visitors first enter the South American Gallery and are “met” by Sir Ernest Shackleton and the crew of his legendary ship, the Endurance. Shackleton led the ill-fated 1914 expedition to complete a transcontinental crossing of Antarctica. The endeavor became a survival story when his ship became trapped, and eventually crushed, by ice in the Weddell Sea. A dock scene tells the incredible survival story of the Endurance crew.

As you descend the entrance ramps and venture further into the penguin center, you “board” Shackleton’s Endurance and cross the Drake Passage to Antarctica. You may be met with a calm sea at day, a starlit night sky or the Drake’s notorious rough seas. Continuing down the ramps, you cross the Antarctic Convergence, which occurs when the moist air above the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans meet the frigid air above the Southern Ocean. The mixing of warm and cold air causes the moisture to condense and create fog. As you make your way below deck, portholes show glimpses of Antarctic wildlife including orcas, krill and leopard seals.

After passing through the acrylic underwater tunnels and the Underwater Gallery, the path brings you to a world of ice. Spotlight on Science showcases the research of world-renowned polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser, head of the Polar Oceans Research Group, and the importance of sea ice for the Antarctic ecosystem. Food sources for many species in the Antarctic region require sea ice for survival. Understanding these ecological changes caused by the shifting formation of sea ice can help us protect ecosystems in the future.

Across the cavernous room, Ice Core Investigations allows guests to explore ice cores, an important tool in uncovering the history of the Earth’s climate. Ice cores are drilled and excavated from thousands of years of compressed snow that has turned to ice. The air pockets trapped between layers serve as a record of what gasses filled the atmosphere over time, allowing us to compare different periods of climate history.

Watch for calving glaciers as you climb the stairs to the Antarctic Gallery. A glacier is a very large piece of ice that is pulled across land by gravity like a slow conveyor belt. Reaching the ocean, ice breaks off from the rest of the glacier and falls into the sea during a process known as calving.

Just outside the Drake Passage Gift Shop, Focus on the Field features the Detroit Zoological Society’s own Matthew Porter, a bird department zookeeper who had the rare and extraordinary opportunity to spend the 2015-2016 austral summer doing field work for the Polar Oceans Research Group in Antarctica. Matthew studied adélie penguins, chinstrap penguins, gentoo penguins, brown skuas, south polar skuas and southern giant petrels.

Learning about the Antarctic ecosystem while journeying through Polk Penguin Conservation Center may compel you to want to help in some way. Before exiting the penguin center, visitors have the opportunity to Make a Difference in the Antarctic Gallery. The Make a Difference kiosks guide you in finding ways to help. Whether it is buying your groceries locally, changing your home lighting to energy-efficient light bulbs, or riding your bicycle to work, you can make a difference with every step you take. The machines allow for you to take a picture of yourself, which is then placed onto a digital card that includes your pledge as well as facts about sustainability and the hashtag #MakeADifference. The digital card is emailed to you, with the option of also posting to social media sites to share with your friends and family.

All those who pass through the Polk Penguin Conservation Center have the ability and opportunity to join us in our mission of Celebrating and Saving Wildlife and leave a lasting, positive impact on the Earth.

– Claire Lannoye-Hall is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field – Scientific Research in Antarctica

As the only continent on Earth without a native human population – and with the harshest and most extreme climate in the world – Antarctica presents a unique, natural laboratory for scientific research. As challenging as the climate is, it is vital to understanding ecosystems and our impact on the planet.

Half a century ago, the governments of 30 countries collectively formed the Antarctic Treaty System to regulate this natural wonder as a scientific preserve. Now more than 50 research stations are in operation there, with scientists and their support staff numbering a few thousand during the austral summer when conditions are less severe. These include biologists, ecologists, geologists, oceanographers, physicists, astronomers, glaciologists and meteorologists. Even still, the vast majority of the white continent is still little known. Such is the case with the Weddell Sea. Its iceberg-filled waters are unpredictable and treacherous. This is the same sea that captured and crushed Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, 100 years ago.

We sailed the Weddell Sea as part of a recent expedition to Antarctica with scientists from the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) and the Polar Oceans Research Group (PORG). World-renowned polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser, head of the PORG, shared his extensive knowledge on board, as he has done as consultant on the Polk Penguin Conservation Center. His research, which spans nearly four decades, operates out of the U.S. Palmer Station on Antarctica and focuses on the ecology of penguins and their habitats. Over the years, Dr. Fraser and his team have revealed a dramatic decline in Adelie penguins in this particular region of Antarctica – an 80 percent drop over the last four decades – due to shifting conditions and disappearing sea ice.

Sea ice remains an essential ecological variable in the Weddell Sea. Somewhat unlike the western Antarctic Peninsula (where the U.S. Palmer Station sits), sea ice is the platform for species survival. During our trek within this sea and our landings at Devil Island and Brown Bluff, we observed tens of thousands of Adelie penguins. The presence of sea ice in this oceanic basin appears to have had a positive effect on this species through processes that are not yet fully understood – but a theory is emerging. Unlike other areas, populations of Adelie penguins are either stable or increasing here. This is a very different situation from the western Antarctic Peninsula where sea ice is diminishing and Adelie populations are decreasing with it. A number of observational metrics including nesting density, chick condition and colony aspect were compared just a few days later during our voyage to the Palmer Station.

Visiting these locations within the Weddell Sea was also important to scouting potential field research sites. No other team or country is doing ecological research here. Given that the Weddell Sea is closer to any other region on the Antarctic Peninsula where sea ice still persists, it offers the most optimal situation to more closely study how sea ice impacts the ecosystem.

These donor-funded excursions are important to the Detroit Zoological Society’s wildlife conservation efforts. They have also yielded significant philanthropic support – our Antarctic expeditions have led to contributions of $15 million for the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, and this most recent venture also secured $67,000 for the Polar Oceans Research Group. While fundraising is an important goal, our relationship with Dr. Fraser and PORG is a compelling example of the power and impact of collaboration between the DZS and conservationists in the field.

– Ron Kagan is the executive director and CEO of the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field: Saying Goodbye to Antarctica

In what seems like the blink of an eye, this incredible journey at the bottom of the Earth has come to an end as I write to you back home at the Detroit Zoo. Three months ago, I flew to Chile, sailed across the Drake Passage and landed on Anvers Island in Antarctica. My home became the U. S. Palmer Station where I joined the expert field team of Polar Oceans Research Group.

We zodiac’ed around the local waters through wind, snow, and ice day after day, traversing the stunning landscape to study penguins, skuas, southern giant petrels, and more. Through the quick Antarctic summer, we travelled to many rocky islands, watching the birds lay eggs and diligently incubate them to hatching. Then the dedicated parents brooded their chicks, foraging often to find krill, fish, and more to feed their downy kin in an effort to raise them to maturity.

In my final days of observation, the birds continued to grow. The Adelie chicks lost most if not all of their down and are were almost ready to hop in the Southern Ocean for their first swim. The chinstraps were just behind them, but the gentoos were still downy, with a little more time to grow before hitting the chilly waters. The brown skua chicks were running all over the place as their primary flight feathers were quickly developing. The southern giant petrel parents were regularly leaving their chicks alone at the nest while they went out in search of food.

As we studied the birds, we had to watch out for the many fur seals that had joined the neighborhood, as they do around this time every year. We also saw a couple more humpback whales in the area. One playful individual made quite a commotion on the surface and was repeatedly lunge-feeding, devouring lots of krill.

Antarctica is now a part of me, and a very special part of our world. The Antarctic peninsula is one of the fastest changing places as the world’s environment changes. It will take a worldwide effort to help our planet, but every conscious decision you make to respect, recycle, and conserve will help turn the tides. I am so proud to be a part of our Detroit Zoological Society. Please walk with us down the path of sustainability. Thank you for reading and joining me on this extraordinary journey.

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society who spent the last few months at the U.S. Palmer Station in Antarctica for a rare and extraordinary scientific opportunity to assist a field team with penguin research.