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Exploring microbial diversity in South Georgia’s soils

Dichothrix sp., Ward Hunt Lake, Canada.

Join Museum botanist Anne Jungblut on a research trip to South Georgia in the Southern Atlantic.

The team are mapping microbial biodiversity across glacier-dominated landscapes, investigating how soils and microbes may provide nutrients for life in coastal waters.

More about Anne Jungblut's research

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Our last field trip was to Harpon Bay. Unfortunately, we managed to pick one of the most rainy days of our whole trip. Nevertheless, we still got some good samples, and even more enjoyed dinner and a warm cup of tea in the evening. The main glacier in Harpon Bay is the Lyell Glacier which is highly covered with debris. It is also a very active glacier with a lot of calving.



Lyell Glacier with meltwater stream and seal wallows

IMG_9199.jpgLyell glacier with ice debris

But, now it is time to say good-bye to South Georgia. After 1-month of extensive sampling, we now have an interesting set of samples to take back to the UK for further analysis. The last two days, we spend cleaning, packing, and getting our samples ready for shipping.


We left South Georgia on the James Clark Ross (JCR), one of the British Antarctic Survey's research vessels. The JCR arrived on a windy morning and we were all transferred by jet boat onto it. The JCR left Cumberland Bay as soon as we were onboard, and we waved King Edward Point goody-bye.


SG8.jpgLast views of Grytviken (thanks to Barbara for the images)


King Edward Point Research station

Before the JCR headed towards the Falklands Islands, there was another stop at Bird Island, a small island at the northern tip of South Georgia. A few people joined us from there, and some re-supplies were loaded off. It was a cloudy morning, but Bird Island still looked beautiful. A multitude of birds such as petrels and albatrosses could be seen.


After a few hours at Bird Island, we headed for the open sea. While we were on the JCR , we had a chance to visit the labs and find out more about the science happening on the research cruise. We were lucky the sea was pretty calm throughout our journey, and after 3 days we arrived in Stanley, Falksland Islands. From here, we jumped on a plane to get back to London.



Bird Island


Several albatrosses


On the JCR in open sea


JCR in Stanley Harbour, Falkland Islands


In our project, we would like to investigate how microbial communities  differ between soil types. Therefore, we need to characterise the soil types and chemistry of the soils. This will entail measurements of pH, moisture content and nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and iron.


The pH and soil moisture were determined straight after the collection on return to King Edward Point.  It makes quite a big mess in the lab, but worth it! Nutrient analyses are more complicated and therefore will be done back in the UK.

                                        IMG_8126.jpg Collection of a scree sample for molecular analsysis


IMG_8185.jpgOur little soil lab at KEP


We also measure pH, conductivity, oxygen and temperature for every stream that we sample, but this has to be done directly at the sampling site. For continous measurement over several days, a data logger was also installed in a stream near the station.

                                             DSCF1282.jpgSetting up a data logger in a stream

IMG_8024.jpgOur field probes for pH, conductivity, temperature and  oxygen


Corral Bay is small bay on Barff Peninula. The shores along Corral Bay are covered in a maze of tussock grass and big water-filled wallows, which is very common for South Georiga. The bay leads to a small valley with grasslands, bogs and bright green moss streamsWe also got to see a Sooty Albatross (Phoebetria fusca) pair with their chick, which was a real treat for us.


The next day, we were picked up again by the the King Edward Point (KEP) boat crew and headed back to KEP in a slightly choppy sea. There was a lot of ice from icebergs and glaciers, which must have been pushed into this part of Cumberland Bay by the wind.


IMG_8807.jpgView Corral Bay across Cumberland Bay


Water-filled wallow and tussock grass


IMG_8824.jpgSooty Albatross with chick


Hiking inland from Corral Bay



Ice drifiting in the sea




South Georgia's flora is particularlly rich in cryptogams. While hiking across hills and mountains in South Georiga for interesting soil sampling spots, I also came across a lot of beautiful lichens. Common lichen genera were Caldonia, Usnea and Diploschistes.  There are also several fern species growing in South Georgia and hude amount of moss species, which often cover whole streams; so called "moss streams".



The lichen genus Cladonia in the centre of the image


The lichen genus Usnea


The lichen genus Diploschistes


The fern genus Polystichum


Moss stream



For the second week of our trip to South Georgia, our plan was to sample in St Andrews Bay, which is located on the north coast of South Georgia. The only way for us to get there was to pack our bags and sampling gear and get going on a 7.5 hour hike from Sjörling Valley in Cumberland East Bay, across Lönnberg Valley and into St Andrews Bay, descending a long and steep scree slope.


It was quite a hike but at the end, we were rewarded with views on the massive Heaney, Cook and Buxton Glacier as well as South Georgia's largest king penguin colony, with more than 100,000 birds. The hut was also amazing with penguins and fur and elephant seals as friendly next door neighbours.


Sjörling Valley

IMG_8466.jpgLönnberg Valley



First views of St Andrews Bay with Heaney, Cook and Buxton Glaciers


The hut in St Andrews Bay


Here in St Andrews Bay there were also a lot of molting penguins, and it seems that they preferably do this by standing with their feet in the cool stream waters. Because of the huge numbers of penguins, most of the streams had two or three rows of penguins lining the stream shores.



Molting king penguin

                   IMG_8586.jpgPenguins along the streams in St Andrews Bay


While we were in St Andrews Bay, we had a lot of sampling to do. This included a visit to the heart of the penguin colony to collect soil samples. The samples will help us to  evaluate how the microbial diveristy in soils and streams that are heavily influcend by wildlife will differ to sites without penguins or seals. The analysis of the samples will also assist us in understanding how the presence of wildlife is linked to the nutrients that enter the coastal waters.


King penguin colony in St Andews Bay


Soil sampling in St Andrews Bay



                                                                          Water sampling in St Andrews Bay


Other blogs by Anne