Amazing Antarctica – Taking Research to the End of the Earth

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Marine Biology student Katharine Clayton writes about Professor John Spicer's lecture on his awe-filled trip to Antarctica.

Professor John Spicer is probably one of the most inspiring science communicators I’ve met since entering the doors of the university; it's impossible to be a marine biology student here at Plymouth University and not appreciate what this man does for the scientific community. On the 18th May, his bubbly personality and unforgettable Scottish accent filled a packed lecture theatre and enticed many students into hearing about his adventures.

Earlier this year, John spent several weeks in Antarctica studying his beloved crustaceans and investigating the relationship between cold temperatures and gigantism in amphipods, relatives of the beachfleas on our shores. Although unsure of the direction this talk was going to take, it was clear when the lights went down that this was a no note-taking lecture; the best way to experience this type of talk was to sit back and embrace the fantastic public speaker that is Professor John Spicer.

Beginning with how to get there, John described the fantastic route he took with breath-taking images to set the scene; images that you see on TV as the backdrop to a David Attenborough documentary.  Some of the world’s best scientists call Rothera Base on the Antarctic Peninsula home; geologists, marine and terrestrial biologists and many more. Explaining how life there differs from our cosy homes in Plymouth, John described the regimented procedures ensuring everyone’s safety, and informed us of the consequences that ensued when they weren't followed!

After providing half an hour of stories that I won’t even attempt to retell, John talks through the fabulous wildlife on Antarctica. Antarctica is a place you would expect to have relatively little biodiversity, but actually, the opposite is true. The way John portrayed this environment really was a feast for the senses, as he described the sights, sounds, and smells of the local fauna. One of those prominent animals was the fighting elephant seals, with the youngsters covered in blood. A fun fact, these immense creatures produce horrific sneezes from time to time, as smelly as they are ugly! In a land of barking fur seals, a multitude of mini and not so mini-beasts live beneath the waves too, from sea cucumbers to sponges - and not forgetting the isopods and amphipods that John is so well-known for researching.

Which brings us onto the burning question, what was John actually there for? Well, John was conducting research on the giant Antarctic intertidal beachfleas, an extreme version of some of the experiments that Marine Biology students have conducted themselves right here in Plymouth. The intertidal and shallow-water environments in temperate and tropic regions are fascinating and well-studied, but not so much in the Antarctic, where gigantism is a particularly striking feature of the creatures there. For those unfamiliar with the term, I’m not talking house-sized mice roaming the glaciers, although it is the case that toward the poles, certain marine-invertebrates are larger than their tropical and temperate counterparts. This particular phenomena is thought to occur due to the availability of oxygen known as the oxygen limitation hypothesis. Cooler water can hold more oxygen, and this abundance is thought to be the driver of gigantism - the organisms’ ability to grow and survive with larger bodies. If true, in the age of rapid global warming, the ‘gigantic’ species endemic to these polar regions face an uncertain future. However, since the hypothesis was put forward formally by one of John’s friends and colleagues at the British Antarctic Survey, tests of the hypothesis have yielded conflicting results. Although it's early days, John highlighted that his trip has yielded data for and against the hypothesis.

Impersonations of penguins, perfect timing of quips and sobering stories all made for an evening of rumbling laughter, followed by stunning silence and rapt attention, followed by more laughter. On a final note, John touched on the subject of the Antarctic treaty, which has such a presence on Rothera base. Signed in 1959 by 53 nations, the treaty sets out strict rules to follow, concerning recycling, weapons, wildlife and many more, all vital in preserving such a majestic part of our world – a continent laid aside for science. He states that this treaty is soon up for a re-negotiation in 2040, which could see our relatively pristine environment be subjected to exploitation in our lifetimes - a vision that myself, John and many others wish to remain as that - a vision.

Katharine Clayton

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