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Discovering Antarctic Lichens

December 2009

Exploring lichen biodiversity

Posted by William P Dec 31, 2009

November 20 to November 29

When developing a scientific study there is no better way to clarify one's thoughts than to prepare a seminar. It focuses the mind and is an opportunity to receive good advice too.


After cooking dinner on November 20, I gave a presention on ‘Exploring Lichen Biodiversity’. In my talk I mentioned that lichens are excellent bioindicators of environmental change and that Signy is a biodiversity hotspot for lichens and other organisms. Although BAS collections include important historical material from Signy, fresh material is required to help understand environmental change. As a consequence of warming and rapid glacial retreat, new areas are being exposed providing opportunities for lichen colonization both in areas surrounded by ice towards the summit and by the coast.


I received constructive comments from my Signy mates and by the end of my talk had developed a strategy. I obviously would need to focus my sampling on lichens growing on exposed rocks in areas largely free from snow cover! How this would develop would depend on weather and where I could go. When working alone access to the Island is, naturally, restricted.


I would also need to consider various risk assessments including disturbance and vulnerability of populations. Sampling would be kept to a minimum. My first walk on my own was up the Stone Chute - for photography. At that time it was snow covered when damage through trampling would be less of an issue.


Lichen and moss heaths with Bruce and Tony skiing in the distance (encircled) at Factory Bluffs above Stone Chute. Bruce and I had a memorable climb to Robin Peak in amazing weather. I am delighted that a photo taken here will be included in the new edition of my book ‘Lichens


Neuropogon aurantiaco-atra emerging through the snow. Dirk thought the outline was reminiscent of the shape of the Antarctic continent!


Examining lichens on a boulder towards the summit of Green Gable (206m),. Snow was melting down below but it was very cold here, the low temperature further exacerbated by the wind chill.


Close-up showing lichens beneath an intricate pattern of wind eroded, feather-like crystals of ice.


Examining lichens on the cairn of Rusty Bluff (221 m). A splendid ridge walk via the Backslope and Green Gable. Initially ‘manky’, a term frequently used in the South for ‘misty’, the weather became sunny with splendid views.


Lichen sampling site. Slope of Green Gable, looking towards Gourlay snowfield and Paal Harbour.


My laboratory for my stay at Signy base.


Matt and Tony attending to the loo pipe which, helped by elephant seals and ice, had come lose from its anchorage . I guess anyone reading my blog will have spotted the lichens by now!


November 16 to November 19


A fantastic walk involving training from Bruce in two-person glacial traverse to a Nunatak, Manhaul rocks (McCleod Glacier).



Towards the summit of Manhaul Rocks there are lichen covered rocks. Strong northerly winds had brought in brash ice towards the coast. Elsewhere are colourful lichen and algal assemblages. Bird droppings nearby indicate evidence of nutrient enrichment.


The following day I accompanied Bruce, Jessica and Dirk to NW Signy (via Jane Col) with an overnight stay at Foca, Northpoint and returning via Robin Peak (261 m). I had hoped to sample lichens from Andreaea plateau for a Norwegian colleague but snow lay deep on the ground. Bruce thought it would be at least January before it melted.


Bruce (with Jessica and Dirk in the picture) aired the sleeping bags on the hut roof. Aided by the warmth of cooking (with Primus stoves) and from the light of two Tilley lamps, the hut was soon very cozy. The down RAB sleeping bags were excellent. None of us were cold.


Jessica sampled the moss banks of Chrisodontium aciphyllum, at Skua Terrace . Studies indicate that the moss banks – a hummocky vegetation type - can be up to 4 metres deep and are potential indicators of climate change over the past 2000 years! The close-up image shows Chrisodontium and macrolichens (Neuropogon and Cladonia species).


Bruce, Jessica and Dirk by lichen covered rocks, North Point. The following images are of some of the wildlife we encountered.


Nesting Gentoo Penguin by lichen covered rock. North Point.


Indignant sub-antarctic skua on lichen-covered rocks, North Point. The taxonomic status of Antarctic skuas requires clarification since hybrids between ‘species’ exist too!


Southern Petrel on nest by lichen covered rocks, North Point.


Lichen-covered rock, William’s Haven (not named after me), North Point.


Close-up of lichens on rock. William’s Haven, Northpoint.



Jessica monitoring Gentoo penguins. Above William’s Haven, Northpoint. Excess levels of nutrients, for example from guano, are harmful for lichens, mosses and other organisms.


Matt and Bruce were excellent ‘husky dogs’ for hauling a rescue sledge via the steep Stonechute to Khyber Pass, but it was Jessica and Dirk who were taking the strain at this point as we were going downhill.





I cannot believe how fast time has flown! I'm writing this on Friday December 4, almost 1 month since the Signy Team arrived on Signy for the 2009 ‘first call’


Jessica Royles (pictured with one of the ‘Friendlies’ – a skua that may be more than 20 years old), is a BAS and Cambridge University PhD student who is attempting to reconstruct Holocene climate from information from deep Antarctic moss banks. She has started an entertaining Signy web diary ( which is being continued by Tony Clements.


Tony is our plumber (here working in the reverse osmosis shed) and arguably the most important person as he has the most recent advanced medical training. We hope we won’t need his assistance in this area, at least.


It is high time I continue my blog, which is of a more lichenological nature, and which I started on board the James Clark Ross.


November 7 to November 15

Arrival at Signy



I helped with relief on November 7 and was transported to Signy Island with other members of our base and relief party by tender on Sunday November 8 to take up residence for the next 5 weeks or so. The weather was bright, cold and sunny. Wind chill was acute as we sped across the water so we did not remove our gloves for long to take photos! The cliffs above Signy base were glowing with bright orange lichens, readily visible from the tender. Cape and Snowy Petrels nest on these steep cliffs which encourage growth of these colourful lichens.


We were meet by Matt Jobson, carpenter by trade and supremo in all things Antarctic with 12 years experience in the Antarctic. For the last three years Matt has been Signy Base Commander. He is also Magistrate - British Antarctic Territories, Harbour Master and Deputy Postmaster of Signy.


A few days later (November 13) while we were assisting with cargo, our first elephant seal came to land. Adult seals are so heavy (more than 1000 kg) that they can seriously damage cargo and facilities. All hands were required to assist avert the container with fragile kitchen materials. The seals might consider this as comfortable bedding!


My visit and interdisciplinary work certainly benefits from my Signy mates and their help in so many different ways. It is a real privilege to visit Signy - a trip of a life-time. I am thoroughly enjoying all aspects (including cooking, gash, nightwatch duties and Saturday afternoon ‘scrubout’). Matt has even taught me to make bread!


My first walk

My first walk (11/11/2009) was with Jessica up the Backslope behind the base towards Observation Bluff. As we were not going far, we were dressed in our padded warm orange work overalls. The scene: indescribably beautiful shades of white and grey but the keen wind whipped up snow, transporting it considerable distances. Backslope is actually much steeper than it looks in this wide angle shot taken below Observation Bluff, looking towards Coronation Island. We pulled our hats down and scarves around our faces and trudged up the slope, the snow crunching under our feet. Almost blown off our feet, we made it as far as the Italian weather station. It would have been foolish to have ascended to the summit where (we later learned) snow blown by strong north easterlies created snow cornices making the summit appear larger than in reality. Tony reminds me the seawater inlet (flowing water sucked in under pressure) froze for a second consecutive day.


Lichen finds


Jessica’s data loggers (on the Backslope and below Observation Bluff) recorded a temperature of -9°C. Strong winds and wind chill made the temperature probably less than -25°C. The lowest temperature she recorded this year on this site was -30°C (compared with -19°C inside the base!). The main moss present is Chrisodontium aciphyllum, the focus of her study, which forms hummocky vegetation amongst which many lichens thrive. 14.jpg

I managed to find Neuropogon aurantiaco-atra, a lichen Charles Darwin collected during his voyage on the Beagle. Levels of usnic acid in lichens and mosses may vary according to levels of UV-B radiation – ‘natural suncreens’.


Penguin monitoring (and some lichens)

Penguin monitoring on Signy is beginning in earnest. Dirk Briggs, (BAS penguin expert) kindly invited me to accompany him on the next day (12/12/2009) to Gourlay Peninsula in the South East where he was recording Adelie and Chinstrap penguins. En route, snow was overhanging most shorelines so we were careful to avoid walking too close to the edge. I decided against enhancing this image as it was not very bright that day. It was snowing too. Wonderful! The weather remained bitterly cold. This time proper gear (base, mid-layers and salopettes) were worn and rucksacks with general supplies taken. I found the walk immensely enjoyable.


Whilst monitoring (by counting the penguins), Dirk suggested I walk to a nearby cairn. I did and sampled a small piece of lichen for a colleague back home. This was my first collection. Jessica, Tony, Bruce and I have since visited Gourlay on several occasions and assisted Dirk in penguin monitoring.



These two images are of Chinstrap penguins among lichen-covered roicks


Returning to base, the only visible lichens were on steep, wind-exposed surfaces. I did enhance this image in photoshop slightly to improve contrast or else it would be very grey ….


As we descended Stonechute towards Signy Station, Sunshine Glacier was visible in the middle distance. The time is 19.46.


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.

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