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Antarctica researchers reveal big changes by studying the smallest creatures

A vast expanse of dry brown soil with a distant ridge of snow-covered hills.
Ariel Waldman
Beacon Valley in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica

Summertime near the South Pole is still chillingly cold, yet every year, a group of scientists and polar explorers make their way to the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica. Their goal is to gather data on tiny life that thrives where few things can survive. KNAU’s Science Desk intern Claire Gibson, a geology student at Northern Arizona University, reports on decades-long research from the National Long Term Ecological Network.

Polar biologist Natalie Aranda treks across the Dry Valley wilderness of Antarctica, one of the driest places on Earth. She can only reach the Dry Valleys by helicopter and then sets up camp where she will live for the next two months, collecting samples of algae.

“Sample sites are remote, sometimes we sample by the stream gauge, which is the only type of infrastructure you'll find…other than that it’s just you and the wilderness,” says Aranda.

The Dry Valleys are the only place where you can walk on Antarctica and touch the continent without standing on miles of thick ice. Aranda searches for algae that looks like stringy mats of carpet lining the bottom of stream beds that briefly thaw during the summertime.

An orange microbial mat in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, rehydrated from flowing water in streams from glacial and lake melt. It looks basically like stringy goo.
Ariel Waldman
An orange microbial mat in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, rehydrated from flowing water in streams from glacial and lake melt.

“When I was in the stream for long periods of time, my boots would get just a little bit wet, and just, that was enough to make my feet really really frozen,” Aranda says.

Aranda braves the cold and wind of Antarctica to study algae that photosynthesize only eight weeks out of the year. She doesn’t know exactly what she will learn…“but it's almost guaranteed that something good will come out of it,” says Aranda.

One thing is that Antarctica’s harsh environment limits the species that survive there. Thus, the ecosystem in the Dry Valleys ends up being very simple compared to most other places on Earth, and interactions between species are easier to understand. For example, biologist Jesse Jorna studies the nematodes that eat the algae: tiny worms that are so small you can barely see them.

“They live in us, on us, they live in our homes, in our garden, on our farms right, and on our food–they are pretty much everywhere,” Jorna says.

What is special about studying the nematodes in Antarctica is that they are the top predator in the ecosystem. It’s like studying wolves in Yellowstone but in miniature. “We call it a natural laboratory sometimes, and so rather than taking your one worm from maybe a prairie or some other system, putting it in a dish and looking at it, we have that happening in a real natural system,” says Jorna.

And, long-term data helps scientists generate a baseline, which is essential for understanding how ecosystems change over time, for example, with climate change. Abigail Borgmeier also studies nematodes with the Long Term Ecological Network. “Any impact of climate change we are seeing now and in the future, the only way we will be able to detect that is if we have that baseline,” says Borgmeier.

An image taken under a microscope of a translucent, pale worm with its innards showing, against a mostly black background.
Ariel Waldman
A tiny worm, or nematode, Scottnema lindsayae, is one of the most abundant nematodes in Antarctica.

It is not just scientists who seek to explore the ecosystems of the Dry Valleys. Capturing this baseline through film is what drives Ariel Waldman, National Geographic Explorer. She hikes next to flowing streams to turn her lens to microscopic life.

It is unusual to film things as small as nematodes, but Waldman says if we don’t we can lose them without knowing anything about them. “And I think that is what is really scary when it comes to climate change is losing things without even knowing what you’ve lost, or not knowing what we should be protecting because we don’t know enough about it.”

When standing on the seemingly barren landscape of the Dry Valleys, Waldman looks around her and knows that there is life all around. “And so it's this really exciting feeling of being in this place that feels empty and barren and beautiful. But you actually know that it’s full of life.”

Decades of research on tiny life in one of the most inhospitable places can reveal the planet’s biggest changes.