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Discovering Antarctic Lichens

6 Posts tagged with the natural_history_museum tag

Lichens grow almost everywhere – apart from the deep sea. As my blog has a lichen focus, it is high time I completed it! We picked up a field party at King Edward Point (KEP), South Georgia which provided new experiences to share with you.


We arrived at King Edward Point shortly after 11.00 a.m. on December 17. I checked my GPS. Sunset was at 7.57p.m. and sunrise 2.46 a.m.


Jessica, Malu, Bruce and I disembarked from the JCR together after lunch and set off towards Grytviken. The contrast in the weather since our earlier visit (October 29-30) was dramatic. Snow was scarcely to be seen. Summer had arrived. We certainly did not need to wear many layers!


After a brief visit to the museum where we borrowed ski poles to ward off potentially angry fur seals, we set off to explore our local surroundings. I climbed the slope behind Shackleton’s grave to the same area I had visited with Mick Mackey 6 weeks previously.


Photo taken above Shackleton’s graveyard on my way to Gull Lake.


I met Jessica and Malu walking towards Gull Lake. The lake was frozen when Mick and I last saw it and weather bitterly cold!

I explored the area for lichens and returned to the Museum.


South Georgia Museum, Grytviken, managed by the South Georgia Heritage Trust is located in stunning surroundings amongst spectacular relics of the Norwegian whaling industry. The museum was set up by Nigel Bonner, a former deputy director of the British Antarctic Survey, and opened in 1992. Nigel Bonner was also a Government sealing inspector in South Georgia in the 1950's and among other things undertook the first studies into the then endangered fur seals and reindeer. After his retirement from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) he returned to SG and set up the whaling museum. Tim and Pauline Carr took over the curatorship in 1992, extending the collection and displays to include the islands natural history, administration, exploration and expeditions and other related maritime history. The museum is visited by thousands of people every year.


I was welcomed outside the museum by Ainslie Wilson, its manager.


I was greeted at the entrance by a magnificent specimen of a wanderer (the wandering albatross), the bird with the largest wingspan of any in the world.


Large specimens such as wanderers and whale skeletons naturally excite everyone and take centre stage in virtually every museum. Imagine my surprise when I found the centre of this exhibit was occupied by much less well known and smaller organisms!


Lying next to a cute albatross chick on its nest is a charming selection of lichens, mosses and fungi which can be found in South Georgia.


A nice selection which whetted my appetite to explore for lichens in a new area – the plateau above the museum leading to Mt Duse.


I was greatly impressed by the range of exhibits, the well-illuminated displays and clear labelling. It was a most enjoyable visit. The museum and gift shop is a ‘must see’ for anyone visiting South Georgia. I do hope I shall be lucky enough to be able to visit again someday.


I was soon greeted by a spectacular fell-field carpeted by lichens, mosses and a tussock-forming grass within view of Mt Sugartop and Mt Paget (2934 m), the summit of Allardyce Range, the highest in South Georgia. Wonderful!


I am used to seeing reindeer lichen in Scandinavia and Scotland but did not see it on South Georgia on my previous visit when it was snowy. It is eaten by reindeer which have the right gut flora to digest its polysaccharides.


I admired a king penguin standing amongst dandelions on my return to the ship. Seeing the alien dandelions reminded me how little we know about how lichens are dispersed.


Visit to King Haakon Bay

A highlight of our sea voyage was certainly our visit to King Haakon Bay yesterday (December 18) which is challenging to navigate, rarely visited by BAS but a popular route for tourist ships who trace Shackleton’s voyages. We travelled overnight (12 hours averaging 12 knots) from King Edward Bay - a distance of ca 140 nautical miles. I was on deck shortly after 6.00 am as we approached the Bay. Here is a small selection of photos I took on this special day.


First photo I took (6.09 a.m.).


This is where Shackleton arrived from Elephant Island.


Ex-Signy mates, Jessica and Bruce.


Yellow lichens are readily visible on coastal rocks from the ship.


Blue-eyed, South Georgia shag.


It is now Saturday December 19. We won’t set foot ashore again until our ship arrives at Stanley in the Falkland Islands (scheduled for December 31) in time to catch a flight back to UK on January 1.




William is now en route home where he will begin working on the specimens and data he has collected during his time 'down South'.


Jessica, Bruce and I are now onboard the James Clark Ross (JCR) currently anchored off Wilson’s Harbour, South Georgia before the ship heads North and resumes the Science cruise. Our remaining days at Signy passed all too quickly. An added bonus (as far as Jessica, Bruce and I were concerned) was stormy weather further south resulting in JCR arriving two days late on December 14. An extra 2 days on Signy Island! I shall complete the Signy part of my blog by sharing a special visit with you and local events.

Cummings Cove

On December 9 penguin monitoring and impending bothy maintenance necessitate a visit to the west coast and I am only too keen to join Matt, Dirk and Bruce as this relatively remote habitat is amongst the least disturbed on Signy. It will be an ideal reference site. We needed to cross the glacier so on this trip I carried a ‘rack’, an assortment of karabiners and other climbing gear as a precautionary measure.


Bruce, Matt, myself and Dirk on veranda outside Signy Base The weather bodes well as we set off - sunny weather and blue skies. Liberal suncream and lip balm was applied.


The ‘racks’ or ‘janglies’ as Bruce calls them are not particularly heavy as they are constructed of strong light modern alloys and include a selection of karabiners, ice-screws etc. The crampons packed in a protective plastic bag are less bulky.


Photo taken during a short break at Khyber Pass. Weighing around 20kg, it stood on its own without falling over. A sure sign of a well-packed rucksack!!!


On summit of Tioga Hill (278m) – the highest on Signy.


On the west coast, walking towards Cummings Hut. Coves were filled with brash ice and snow in places, lying deep and right up to the shore line.


At Cummings Hut.


Above Cummings Cove on lower slopes of Cryptogam Ridge. Named for its luxuriant cryptogamic plants (lichens, mosses and other non-flowering plants). Cryptogamic literally means hidden sex organs i.e. they don’t have flowers.



Rocks and soil are completely covered by lichens and mosses.


The summit of Cryptogam Ridge (seen here looking towards Moe Island) is similarly well-covered.


Ascending a blocky scree. Our work involved walking down to the coast and ascending and descending several hills in varied terrain.


Penguin Monitoring. A chin-strap is in the fore-ground.



Our work complete. Returning towards the base. Heavy skies suggested snow and it did snow for a while.


Back at Khyber the snow had stopped and we returned to base, satisfied with a successful day.


A = Signy Base. B = Cummings Hut. My GPS indicated we had walked over 9 miles.

No mechanized transport (skidoos etc) is available for travel on Signy. You do need to use your legs!


Local events


One of several Norwegian whaler’s graves on Signy, Cemetry Flats, 7/12/2009. Of the five graves here, this one marks the burial of Aksel Olsen Helstad, born 8/11/1889 died 21/2/1914 onboard SS Normanna from Sandefjord. I noticed the graves appeared on the wrong position on the 1:10000 map (2005) which I confirmed using GPS. It will be some time before this is rectified and a new Signy Map is published. Aerial photography is difficult on Signy on account of the frequent cloud cover. Certainly a lesson not necessarily to believe your map!


11/12/2009. Icebergs, Gourlay Peninsula.


Whilst searching for lichens I came across these snow petrels and icicles. In places the snow remained 4 feet deep or more. Taken from the path leading up the Backslope behind Signy Field Station, 12/12/2009


Snow had retreated considerably on the south eastern slopes of the Stonechute with large moss patches apparent higher up, 12/12/2009.

Leaving Signy

Today, December 14 is departure day. Jessica, Bruce and I travelled by tender to the James Clark Ross ship moored in Borge Bay.


Samples were packed ready for shipment to UK next year within view of sparring elephant seals, the old boiler from the remains of a Norwegian whaling station and Jane Peak. Wow!


A friendly wave from an elephant seal - this year’s pup.


I took this panorama on the ship just before 9.00 pm looking north west. Robin Peak which Bruce and I had climbed flitted in and out of the mist. Back on the ship this reminded me that the peak is named after a ship’s captain. The small boat, a humber, is an inflatable rubber boat which provided relief to Waterpipe hut. Sunshine Glacier certainly lived up to its name!


I checked my GPS. Sunset at this location was 9.27, sunrise 2.25 and we had yet to reach the longest day.


I am privileged to have experienced Signy from almost Winter to full Summer, all in the space of 5 weeks. The downside was that I needed to sample in exposed sites free from snow. One area I had hoped to sample lichens for a Norwegian colleague below Robin Peak was likely to remain buried under snow until at least January!


November 30 was extremely windy, definitely an excellent opportunity to begin sample sorting and packing in earnest! Samples are air-dried back at base in a laboratory for a few days before being carefully wrapped in tissue and packeting for transport to UK next May in ‘cold stow’ under low humidity conditions. I am also databasing specimens on a daily basis, downloading GPS tracks and importing to GIS software and establishing a photoarchive which will help decide the ‘next steps’.


50th Anniversary of Antarctic Treaty

On 1 December we awoke to gloriously sunny weather. Strong winds and favourable tide brought in the first major brash ice to Factory Cove. I began to catch up with emails and rescued from ‘SPAM’ one sent to me by a Norwegian aunt referring me to an article on the 50th Aniversary of the Antarctic Treaty. I checked the article online - a rare event for me on Signy as I normally only check emails intermittently.


These are the routes I trekked on the anniversary. I first revisited Khyber Pass. After dinner and ‘gash’ duties, Matt suggested I walk up Observation Bluff. Wonderful!


Examining lichens on Green Gable overlooking the Gourlay snowfield.


Sunset over Coronation  Island from Bernsten Point, 20.59 hours. According to my GPS sunrise was at 02.39 and sunset at 21.03.


Coastal lichens

Coastal lichens are especially well adapted to life in harsh environments and are influenced by salt, temperature and other factors. They are at times completely immersed by sea water. I have been asked to collect samples for several colleagues at the Natural History Museum and elsewhere.


Rock colonised by lichens, W. Cemetery Flat.


A marine lichen, collected from Cemetery Flat – my only sample of a coastal lichen so far! A similar black lichen in the Shetland Islands, Scotland, UK was mistaken for oil after an accidental oil spill.


Bruce and Jessica crossing Cemetery Flats. The ice is beginning to melt and break up. They crossed successfully and avoided getting wet! I decided not to examine coastal lichens on this occasion but to head back up the valley to Khyber.


Next steps

Jessica, Bruce and I probably have 10 days to go before we leave Signy. Our ship, the James Clark Ross is currently at Rothera but its itinerary is delayed owing to heavy storms. As well as returning home and to the Museum, I look forward to visiting colleagues at the British Antarctic Survey on January 11 and to consulting their collections. However, an extra day or two on Signy will be a bonus!


I consider my visit to be a success in spite of the snow and hope my visit and the samples I have collected will prove useful to others. I am extremely grateful to everyone for their support in making my visit possible.


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.



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').

Fig. 1.jpg

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).

Fig. 9.jpg

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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