UA, Auburn, Others Join for Antarctic Biological Research

  • September 9th, 2020
A biology professor poses in front of an aquarium filled in invertabrate lifeforms.
Dr. Kevin M. Kocot

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Twenty scientists soon embark on a 14-week voyage to study unexplored Antarctic waters to improve understanding of biodiversity undergoing rapid changes because of a changing climate.

The expedition includes researchers from The University of Alabama, Auburn University, Central Michigan University, the University of Alaska Anchorage and other institutions who will also train the next generation of zoologists in developing expertise on marine invertebrate animals using traditional and cutting-edge techniques.

Funded by four grants totaling more than $2 million from the National Science Foundation, researchers will explore the biodiversity, evolution and biogeographic patterns of animals and microbes living in the Weddell Sea. Using data and biological samples collected during the trip, the scientists will use morphological and molecular tools to assess Antarctic biodiversity and unrecognized genetic variation and patterns of relatedness between populations of marine Antarctic species.

The research is led by Dr. Kenneth M. Halanych, professor and Schneller Endowed Chair of biological sciences at Auburn; Dr. Kevin M. Kocot, UA assistant professor of biological sciences and curator of invertebrate zoology for the Alabama Museum of Natural History; Dr. Andrew Mahon, professor of biology at CMU; Dr. Deric Learman, professor of biology at CMU; and Dr. Sarah Gerken, professor of biological sciences at UAA.

“Antarctica is changing more quickly than anywhere else in the world,” Kocot said. “Conserving the deep sea and polar regions is really important even if people don’t see it. Having this baseline of what lives there, and having more people who can do that in the future is really important.”

Antarctica is among the most rapidly warming places on the planet, and some reports suggest the Antarctic environment is approaching, or possibly beyond, the tipping point for ice shelf collapse. The loss of ice around Antarctica is dramatically changing habitat availability for marine life, particularly invertebrate species living on the ocean floor.

The joint research by Halanych at Auburn and Mahon at CMU attempts to understand environmental factors shaping patterns of diversity in the invertebrates living on the ocean floor in the Southern Ocean through studying their DNA. The findings will inform predictions about how species distributions may change as Antarctic ice sheets melt and how organisms adjust their geographic range in response to environmental changes.

“An organism’s history is written in their genome,” Halanych said. “We will use evolutionary genomic tools to explore biodiversity in Antarctic marine invertebrates and use this information to inform us on how human-mediated climate change may shape populations of marine animals in the future.”

The mollusk pruvotinidae, an aplacophoran solenogastres from near Antarctica.
The mollusk pruvotinid solenogaster from Antarctica, imaged in Kocot’s lab, is part of the group Aplacophora.

For Kocot, this will be the first of two trips to the Antarctic waters over the next four years to find new species of aplacophorans, a group of poorly known worm-like mollusks with scales or spines, and use advanced imaging and DNA sequencing techniques to identify and classify them.

Aplacophora is one of many groups of organisms diverse and ecologically important in the deep sea and polar regions, but studied by just a handful of researchers worldwide. Kocot and his students aim to understand the diversity of this group and its evolution.

“If we don’t know what’s down there, we can’t know what we’re losing,” he said. “We have to continue to explore the world.”

Similarly, Gerken is a leading expert on “comma shrimp,” formally called Cumacea, that are small crustaceans living in ocean sediment. Cumaceans are potentially ecologically important, occasionally occurring in high enough densities that grey whales prey on them, and yet not much is known about them. Her planned monograph on the Antarctic Cumacea will provide a resource for future work in the region.

“It is a constant surprise how much there is left to learn about our world.”

Work led by Learman at Central Michigan aims to better understand how tiny organisms in the sea floor called microbes are impacting carbon cycling in an ecosystem experiencing massive changes. Through studying the genetics and function of microbes collected during the expedition, researchers will determine the species in the community and how they break down organic matter, which drives the distribution of nutrients in the sediment’s ecosystem.

“While microorganisms are the smallest forms of life on Earth, they are the gatekeepers of the cycling of essential nutrients, such as carbon and nitrogen, and the foundation of the food chain that support larger and more complex forms of life,” Learman said.

Follow the researchers on their journey through their blog online at Icy Inverts.

Contact

Adam Jones, UA communications, 205-348-4328, adam.jones@ua.edu

The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.