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New research awards to focus on extremes of life in Antarctica

Contributor:
Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

The New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute (NZARI) will support 7 new proposals that focus on the challenges of warming in Antarctica.

A significant component of this year’s NZARI funding allows researchers to test the resilience of life in the extreme environments of Antarctica, and the ability of organisms to adapt to changing environments.

One of the projects will take the researchers themselves to extremes and conduct New Zealand’s first winter science sortie in the McMurdo Dry Valleys since New Zealand ran a year round operation at Lake Vanda - more than 40 years ago. This time the focus will be on the limits of life in the extremely cold and long winter darkness.

Several of the proposals will focus on developing new methods and techniques to study marine mammals and birds (including Whales and Penguins) and the challenges of changing southern ocean conditions on their life cycles, habitats and distributions.

This year for the first time, NZARI will also make a post-doctoral scholar award to an early career researcher who will work on Antarctic Brittle Stars and determine their distributions in Antarctic and warmer waters. This award is not only for the highest quality research proposal but also recognises the need to be training the next generation of top quality Antarctic Researchers at the international level.

More information on NZARI can be found here: http://nzari.aq

Recipients of NZARI RfP 2016-1

Professor Stephen Dawson (University of Otago) "Sentinels of the Southern Ocean: measuring nutritional condition of right whales using remotely piloted multi-rotor aircraft"

To measure how environmental change affects recovering whale populations, we need a way to measure nutritional condition, essentially, body shape. Right whales store energy as blubber. Hence their condition reflects food availability in the Southern Ocean, and must affect breeding and population recovery. Aerial photography allows measurement of whale size and shape, but at high cost. New drone technology offers a practical and inexpensive solution. We have adapted small multicopters (four and six rotor) to carry calibrated cameras, and will use these to measure the condition of right whales breeding at New Zealand’s Auckland Islands.

Professor Ian Hawes (University of Canterbury) and Dr Susie Wood (Cawthron Institute) "Shining a light in the darkness: Winter science in the McMurdo Dry Valleys"

Despite decades of intensive research in Antarctica’s Dry Valleys, little is known about how these unique ecosystems function in winter. During winter many parts of the Dry Valleys freeze and are presumed inactive, but others retain liquid water and microbial processes are ongoing. Over winter instrumentation can describe some summer-winter changes, but physical access is required to sample biological communities and measure processes. This project will provide insight and allow us to determine how winter dynamics of carbon, nutrients and dissolved gases influence the structure and functioning of Antarctic ecosystems in order to better understand and predict responses to change. Logistics support

Associate Professor Miles Lamare (University of Otago), Associate Professor Mary Sewell (University of Auckland), Associate Professor Bruno Danis (Universite Lbre de Bruxelles), and Dr Antonio Aguera Garcia (Universite Libre Bruxelles) "Transgenerational Plasticity (TGP) in polar invertebrates as mechanism of adapting to a warmer more acidic coastal Antarctic"

Antarctic coastal seas will warm and acidify over the coming decades, and understanding the capacity of polar marine species to adapt to change is vital to predict the future of Antarctic marine ecosystems. Transgenerational plasticity, TGP (where offspring responses to warming reflect parental experiences and hence their ability to persist under climate change) is one mechanism for adaptation, yet there is limited understanding of this key process for polar species. Here, we will quantify TGP in a sea star Odontaster validus, an important predator of the coastal Antarctic, to understand if polar species have the capacity to rapidly adapt in the face of climate change. Logistics support

Dr Phil Lyver (Landcare Research) "Mercury contamination in Adélie and emperor penguins in the Ross Sea: latitudinal, temporal, sexual, age and inter-specific differences"

The oceans of the southern hemisphere, in particular the Southern Ocean, are considered the least contaminated marine ecosystems on earth. However, a changing climate combined with increased emissions of heavy metals from rapidly growing economies in Asia, Africa and South America raises the threat of long-range atmospheric transport and deposition of mercury in the Antarctic. To understand the risk of mercury exposure for top predators in the Ross Sea, we will assess the differences in spatial, temporal, sexual, age and inter-specific concentrations of mercury in Adélie (Pygoscelis adeliae) and emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) in relation to their respective positions in the food web. Logistics support

Dr Adam Martin (GNS Science) "Past Antarctic ice sheet characteristics and stability deduced from lava-ice interactions at Mason Spur, Mount Morning volcano, McMurdo Sound, during mid-Late Miocene climatic warmth"

Antarctica abounds in volcanoes and ice, and exciting new research is showing that when the two interact, the resulting rock forms can record the unique environment at that time. Through interpretation of lava-ice interaction forms, scientists can deduce past thicknesses and variations in thermal regime (a measure of stability) of Antarctica’s ice sheet. In particular, evidence obtained at Mason Spur volcano will provide uniquely valuable information for the mid Miocene Climatic Optimum, when atmospheric CO2 levels were comparable to modern day. This information is vital for validating models of climate and sea level changes that will affect New Zealand. Logistics support

Dr Phil Novis (Landcare Research) "Testing predicted tolerances of Antarctic non-marine biota across all trophic levels"

Predictions of how organisms will respond to changing climate often presumes their current distributions are to some extent defined by their basic life functions. However, we have little evidence of a significant relationship between life function adaptions of Antarctic microbes and their distribution across Antarctic environments. Using high throughput environmental sequencing of frozen legacy samples originating from across the Ross Sea Region, we will characterise distributions of biota along environmental gradients, and compare them with tolerances determined with laboratory cultures. Our proposal involves New Zealand, US and Korean researchers, and is relevant to the new SCAR programs ANTOS, AntEco, and AnT-ERA.

Professor David Prior (University of Otago) and Professor Christina Hulbe (University of Otago) "Past and future deformation of the Ross Ice Shelf"

The response of the Antarctic ice sheet to global warming will have a big impact on global sea level, ocean circulation and climate. The internal temperature of the ice and the alignment of ice crystals are key controls on the rate of ice flow towards the ocean. We will send sound waves through the ice to a string of sensors in a borehole in the Ross Ice Shelf to map patterns of temperature and crystal alignment. These data will allow us to make much better predictions of how the Antarctic ice sheet will respond to global warming. Logistics support

Postdoctoral Research Award:

Dr Quentin Jossart (University of Auckland) "Out of Antarctica: implications of extensive gene flow and multiple reproductive modes on the resilience of a Southern Ocean brittle star"

This project will verify the generalisation of the "out of Antarctica" event (fauna originating from Antarctica that has then migrated to sub-Antarctic and temperate areas) in the brittle star Astrotoma agassizii. Using both morphological and genetic approaches, we will measure the past and present dispersal patterns occurring among Antarctica and warmer waters. This information is primordial in order to evaluate the capacity of this species to respond to environmental change.

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