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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.

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Nearly every beach has its friendly population of elephant seals that spend the days sleeping, yawning and laying around while they are shedding their fur. I think fur seals also try to be friendly but usually they find a reason to growl at you; defending their pups and territories being two of the reasons they have to come chasing towards you across the beach.

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Elephant seals laying between grass and tussock.

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Group of elephant seals on the beach at St Andews bay.

 

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A very sleepy fur seal next to our hut.

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Fur seal pups near King Edward Point station.

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The diversity and abundance of sea birds in South Georgia is stunning! We were fortunate to be able to visit many areas on South Georgia including St Andrews bay, which has one of the largest king penguin colonies in the world... but also other birds can be found such as gentoo penguins, giant petrels and of course skuas. 

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King penguins on St Andews bay.

 

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Gentoo penguin.

 

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Giant petrel.

 

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Skuas.

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Our team went on a one month field expedition to South Georgia at the beginning of this year, funded by the National Geographic Society to collect water, sediment, ice and snow samples from glaciers around South Georgia.

 

South Georgia is located south of the Antarctic Convergence and its mountainous landscapes are dominated by glaciers. More than 150 glaciers can be found on South Georgia, and until recently glaciers have been seen as abiotic features, but now it is known that they contain diverse ecosystems with rich communities of bacteria, cyanobacteria, microbial eukaryotes, Archaea, fungi and microfauna even sometimes insects.

 

South Georgia is located in a zone that will likely be affected by climatic change, which could lead to a further decline of glacial ecosystems. In our project we will therefore do a detailed documentation of the biology and biodiversity found on glaciers on South Georgia using a combination of environmental (eDNA), culture isolation and sequencing. The project is a collaboration between Dr Arwyn Edwards and Tris Irvine-Fynn (Abyerystwyth University), Dr David Pearce (Northumbria University) and me based at the Natural History Museum.

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Heaney Glacier.

 

IMG_1467.jpg    Nordenskjöld Glacier.

 

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Calving glacier front.

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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.

 

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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)


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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.

 

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Bird Island


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Several albatrosses


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On the JCR in open sea


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JCR in Stanley Harbour, Falkland Islands

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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


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