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Discovering Antarctic Lichens

December 21, 2009

One of the Botany department’s researchers, lichenologist William Purvis, is currently conducting fieldwork in the Antarctic, on the island of Signy. The Antarctic is the focus of considerable scientific attention yet remains one of the most remote and difficult areas to access on the globe.

William will be sharing his experiences through this blog during his time on Signy and explaining how scientists work in the field. Given the limited communication with Signy, a real time blog is not possible. Instead, he will be updating us in longer blog posts sent when he can. Follow the progress of William’s work through regular updates on this page. The story begins in early 2009 with submitting the idea for the project and preparations for the voyage.

The idea for the project

The idea to apply for a grant to support exploring Antarctic lichen biodiversity came from a former PhD student of mine, Dr Linda Davies of the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London. Following discussions held with staff at British Antarctic Survey (BAS), Kew  Gardens and the Natural History Museum, an application was prepared.

Competition for research funding is tough. I was delighted to learn in July that the project ‘Exploring Antarctic saxicolous crustose lichen biodiversity under global climate change’ was awarded funds by the British Antarctic Survey Antarctic Funding Initiative - Collaborative Gearing Scheme (CGS). The grant will enable me to visit Signy Island to obtain new baseline collections for BAS & NHM from an area of the world subject to unprecedented change in both conditions and legislation. It will certainly lead to new scientific discoveries.

Before the voyage

I have never visited the Antarctic before though have carried out lichenological research in cold mountainous regions particularly in Scandinavia, Scotland, Eastern Europe and Russia. The Antarctic Briefing Course held at Girton College, Cambridge in September provided an ideal opportunity for me to learn about living and working in the Antarctic and to meet others going South (Antarctic workers always refer to the journey to the continent as 'going South').

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Pre-voyage preparations are vital. I enjoyed consulting collections at BAS, Imperial College London and the NHM and contacting pioneers who had previously visited Signy Island. Alex Tate, Linda Davies and Helen Peat joined me at British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge, 10 February 2009.

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BAS herbarium has many important historical collections from Signy Island and other Antarctic regions. This is Pannaria hookeri collected by T.N. Hooker, great grandson of Sir Joseph Hooker (1817-1911) who, as botanist / surgeon on the British Antarctic Expedition (1839-1843) under command of James Clark Ross, provided the first botanical descriptions of Antarctic regions and collected the first plant specimens from Antarctica, including nine species of lichens.

Going South (25 October to November 6)

I (and others going South for BAS bases) departed from Brize Norton on Sunday 25 October arriving (via Ascension Island) at Stanley in the Falkland Islands on Tuesday 27 October shortly before departure of our ship, the James Clark Ross. I  will visit the BAS bases on South Georgia (i) King Edward Point (KEP) on October 30-31 and (ii) Bird Island (November 1)  to assist in providing ‘relief’ (a euphemism for cargo handling).  Brief field visits will be made at each stop.

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The splendid James Clark Ross is one of the last ships to be built in the Swan and Hunter shipyard, Tyneside, famed for its craftsmanship

Grytviken, South Georgia

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Susan Woodward, medical doctor and me on board the James Clark Ross, King Edward Point, Cumberland Bay looking towards the abandoned Norwegian whaling station, Grytviken, South Georgia. (Photo Credit: Mick Mackey).

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Encarna Gomez and Claudia Mischler examining lichens on a wall surrounding a tombstone which reads ‘In the Memory of Ernest Henry Shackleton Explorer. Born 15th February 1974, Entered Life Eternal 15th January 1922’. Lichens colonise the tombstone though they are more conspicuous on the surrounding wall. Cleaning and run-off from the lead inscription as well as the harsh climate may limit lichen growth here.

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Rhizocarpon geographicum agg. colonising a wall surrounding Shackleton’s tombstone. Scale in mm. Often used to establish when glacial retreat occurred, the growth rate of R. geographicum is considered to be a sensitive indicator of climate change.

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Me holding a lichen-encrusted rock, above the graveyard where Shackleton lies buried, Grytviken. The windswept plateau, unprotected by snow cover, is a harsh environment where lichens thrive and grow slowly. I carefully replaced the rock in its original position!

Commemorating my arrival?

By coincidence, Friday October 6 also marked release of 3 splendid new stamp issues for the British Antarctic Territory: WWF Crab Eater Seals (illustrating seals in their natural habitat), Climate Change (showing changes that have taken effect with the ice-cap in the last 20 years in and around the Antarctic Peninsula) and 50th Anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty (illustrating the wonderful wildlife found around the Antarctic).

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A customer, Jessica Royles (BAS PhD student), and Hugh Marsden (Senior Government Official in the Antarctic Territories and Philatelic Clerc for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) franking stamps in the Conference Room of the James Clark Ross, Borge Bay, Signy Island, Friday October 6.

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This 3-dimensional map of Signy Island, South Orkney Islands (map constructed by Jim Chimonides) shows the topography. The island is rugged with several peaks rising from 250 m to 288 m in altitude. Signy Island probably possesses the greatest terrestrial biological diversity (including breeding seabirds) of any sites of comparable size in the Antarctic. Over 50% of the lichens recorded in Antarctic have been recorded on Signy Island.


I expect to reach Signy Island at 16.00 today (Friday November 6) and to stay there for 5 weeks before my homeward voyage.
William P

William P

Member since: Dec 16, 2009

William Purvis, a lichenologist from the Botany Department, is in the Antarctic on the island of Signy conducting research into lichen biodiversity under global climate change. Follow his blog, updated as and when he can from this remote area.

View William P's profile

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