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Day 2 - Terrestrial ecosystems

Title: A soil map of Wright Valley, Antarctica

Presenter: Malcolm McLeod

Landcare Research

Authors: Malcolm McLeod1, Jim Bockheim2, Megan Balks3

1 - Landcare Research, Hamilton NZ, Private Bag 3127 Waikato Mail Centre, Hamilton, New Zealand,

2 - Department of Soil Science, Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin, 1525 Observatory Drive, Madison, WI 53706-1299,

3 - Earth Sciences Department, Hamilton NZ, Waikato University, Private Bag 3105, Hamilton, New Zealand,


Soils in Wright Valley, Antarctica have been mapped at a scale of 1:50 000 to depict their spatial distribution. Soils on young surfaces contain massive ice within 100 cm of the soil surface and are classified as Glacic Haplorthels or Glacic Haploturbels where there is evidence of cryoturbation. At either end of the valley, soil moisture recharge to the soil ice-table from moist coastal air masses (eastern end) and blowing snow drifts (western end) maintain the depth to ice-cemented permafrost at <70 cm. Soils with ice-cemented permafrost at <70 cm are classified as Typic Haplorthels/Haploturbels. Soils near central Wright Valley often show more development compared with those at the eastern or western ends of the valley. In these soils, ice-cemented permafrost occurs at >70 cm and they are classified as Anhyorthels/Anhyturbels. While undertaking soil mapping, a rapid method to determine soil vulnerability to human foot traffic was developed. The method is based on the disturbance of 10 foot prints at a site multiplied by a soil rehabilitation factor based on the soil weathering stage. Although fine-grained aeolian sands are easily disturbed they also rehabilitate rapidly in the windy conditions of Wright Valley. In contrast, old stable soils have a tight cobbled desert pavement with reddish desert varnish and often show less foot print disturbance. However, when cobbles are overturned, fresh rock without desert varnish and with thick salt accumulations is exposed. Soil mapping has continued in Victoria and Alatna Valleys, Convoy Range, Coombs and Alan Hills.

Title: Monitoring change in coastal Antarctic plant communities

Presenter: Diana King

Institute for Conservation Biology and Environmental Management, University of Wollongong.

Authors: Diana King1, Jane Wasley1, Johanna Turnbull1, Ellen Ryan-Colton1, Kate Mullany1, Arko Lucieer2, Laurie Chisholm3, Sharon Robinson1

1 - Institute for Conservation Biology and Environmental Management, University of Wollongong, Northfields Ave Wollongong NSW 2522,

2 - School of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Tasmania, Hobart TAS 7001

3 - School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Wollongong, Northfields Ave Wollongong NSW 2522


Antarctic terrestrial ecosystems are important models for studying community structure and dynamics, allowing understanding of ecological processes to be transferred to more complex ecosystems. The ATME Recommendations encourage monitoring of Antarctic biodiversity at sufficiently frequent intervals to examine ecosystem responses to climate change, and the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP XV) have agreed to establish a network for monitoring species diversity and abundance across the continent. Improved monitoring and analysis of long-term data sets was also recommended by the International Panel on Climate Change in 2007, however long term vegetation studies are made more difficult in Antarctica, due to the climatic extremes. These studies are vital in establishing trends in plant growth, particularly due to the slow growth rates of Antarctic flora. A long-term vegetation monitoring study was established in East Antarctica in 2003 and has now been going for over 10 years. Bryophyte species composition and dominant lichen groups are assessed along a moisture gradient at two sites (ASPA 135 and Robinson Ridge) in the Windmill Islands. This data informs the only Australian Antarctic State of the Environment Indicator for terrestrial vegetation (SOE 72). The sampling methods used for long-term monitoring of these communities were designed to comply with the Antarctic Treaty System principle of minimisation of destructive sampling, due to the slow growth and regeneration capacity of Antarctic vegetation. Minimal destructive sampling techniques are being utilised for fine -scale change analysis of relative abundance of bryophyte species and lichen taxa. Our results indicate that this methodology is sensitive enough to detect surprisingly rapid climate-induced change in these slow growing communities. We are also exploring the potential for image analysis to resolve these changes, in order to develop non-destructive methodologies for future observing systems covering larger areas. This technique has been acknowledged by the CEP (XV) as a potential method to monitor changes in fine- scale species abundance and distribution across the continent

Title: Diversity and distribution of soil meiofauna from Antarctica

Presenter: Alejandro Velasco-Castrillón

Australian Centre for Evolutionary Biology and Biodiversity, School of Earth and Environmental Science, University of Adelaide

Authors: M A Velasco-Castrillón1, M B Schultz2, S Cooper1,3, A Austin1, J A Gibson4, K Davis5, C Sands6,
S Mcinnes6, B Adams7, M I Stevens1,3

1 - Australian Centre for Evolutionary Biology and Biodiversity, School of Earth and Environmental Science, The University of Adelaide, North Terrace, Adelaide, South Australia, SA 5005, Australia,

2 - Department of Genetics, Bio21 Institute, The University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, 3010, Australia

3 - South Australian Museum, GPO Box 234, Adelaide SA 5000, Australia

4 - Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Private Bag 129, Hobart, Tasmania 7001, Australia

5 - School of Agriculture Food and Wine, The University of Adelaide, Urrbrae, Adelaide, South Australia 5064, Australia

6 - British Antarctic Survey, Madingley Road, Cambridge, CB3 0ET, UK

7 - The College of Life Sciences, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah 84602, USA


Terrestrial life on Antarctica has been described as some of the simplest on Earth, and is primarily restricted to soil meiofaunal populations (e.g. rotifers, tardigrades and nematodes). Various studies have hypothesised about the lack of diversity, but few have examined this using empirical data. Molecular studies have been shown to be useful in determining relationships among populations, delineating species boundaries, biogeographic connectivity and dispersal patterns. However, such studies of these ecologically-important invertebrates are still limited because original taxonomic work has not been revised in current years despite descriptions of new species and re-description of known species. It is evident that species diagnosis is difficult in many cases due to the minute size and conservative morphology of these animals. Here we present preliminary findings of morphological and molecular (using the COI mitochondrial gene) studies from over 1000 individual specimens belonging to these meiofaunal groups from across Antarctica. Our data suggests that a molecular strategy is vital to discern among cryptic species and to delineate species boundaries (widespread vs local endemic) for meiofaunal groups from Antarctica compared to the sub-Antarctic and global distributions.

Title: Glacier Cryoconites: Environmental oddities or important refugia for biota?

Presenter: Ian Hawes

University of Canterbury

Authors: J Webster-Brown1, I Hawes1, A Jungblut2, S Wood3, H Christenson1

1 - University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

2 - Natural History Museum, London, United Kingdom

3 - Cawthron Institute, Nelson, New Zealand


Cryoconites are small, but numerous, aquatic aquaria enclosed in the surface ice of glaciers, which collectively make up an important part of the liquid water environments and biomass of inland Antarctica. The chemistry and microbial diversity of cryoconites over a range of latitudes, elevations and distance from open seawater has been studied in Victoria Land, over a 6 year period. Sites included the Darwin and Diamond Glaciers (Lat 80°S), the upper and lower Koettlitz Glacier (Lat 78°S), and the Wright Glacier (Lat 77°S). Isotopes (tritium, oxygen and deuterium) confirm the origin of the water in the cryoconites as old glacial ice, rather than recent surface snow. However, the chemistry of the liquid water is highly variable, showing a range of pH (<5 to >11), conductivity (<0.005 to >4 mS/cm) and chemical composition, particularly in regard to the relative abundance of the sulphate, chloride and nitrate anions.

Bacteria-specific automated ribosomal intergenic spacer analysis (ARISA) of the sediments from these cryoconites indicated that bacterial diversity varied as a function of pH and cryoconite size, and the bacterial community structure was quite distinct from that of nearby terrestrial ponds. In contrast, for the ubiquitous cyanobacteria, ARISA, morphological and cyanobacterial specific 16S rRNA gene surveys indicated community composition was not influenced by cryoconite size, pH or geographic location. There were also no marked differences between the cyanobacterial communities in the cryoconites, and those of the nearby terrestrial ponds, suggesting a high degree of tolerance to environmental conditions and transportation mechanisms.

Title: Phosphorous geochemistry in coastal meltwater ponds at Bratina Island, Antarctica

Presenter: Hana Christenson

University of Canterbury

Authors: Hana Christenson1,2, Jenny Webster-Brown1, Ian Hawes1,2 and Anne Jungblut3

1 - Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management, University of Canterbury, Christchurch (

2 - Gateway Antarctica, University of Canterbury, Christchurch

3 - Department of Botany, The Natural History Museum, London, United Kingdom


Phosphorous plays an essential role in the biochemistry of all living organisms, and understanding factors controlling its availability in an ecosystem can provide insight into how the ecosystem will respond to change. Freshwater ecosystems in Antarctica contain vibrant microbial communities, dominated by cyanobacteria in structured benthic mats. Productivity in meltwater ponds is generally considered to be limited by nitrogen availability in coastal areas and by phosphorous availability inland, however the sources of phosphorous and factors controlling its bioavailability in Antarctic meltwaters are not well understood.

In January 2011, 2012 and 2013 the concentration and distribution of phosphorous in coastal meltwater ponds at Bratina Island on the McMurdo ice shelf were investigated. Phosphorous distribution between pond water, sediment, soil, soil salts, snow and the ponds’ bacterial mat was determined in 5 ponds. These results have been compiled to construct a model of the phosphorous cycle in each pond which identifies key reservoirs and transfer processes. In the ponds studied, the major reservoir of P was the microbial mat, which contained over 90% of the total phosphorus in the water column of the ponds. Pond sediments contain less than 75% of the total phosphorous in surrounding soils, which have ~8.5 mg/kg of water soluble phosphorous, and up to 2 g/kg of total phosphorous. This suggests that recently flooded soils have an important role as an immediate source of phosphorous to newly formed ponds. Research is continuing to quantify the transfer processes in these systems.

Title: The responses of Antarctic terrestrial species to past climate change, and the importance of geothermal refugia

Presenter and Author: Ceridwen Fraser

Australian National University, Canberra, Building 48, Linneaus Way, ACT 0200


Understanding how past climate change has affected organisms can provide insights into how various species’ distributional ranges might change in response to ongoing global warming. Antarctica’s unique terrestrial biota has apparently evolved in almost total isolation for millions of years, yet the Pleistocene witnessed repeated glacial periods that climatic and geological models indicate blanketed much of the continent in ice. How did Antarctic terrestrial species that require ice-free habitat, such as mites, springtails and mosses, survive ice ages on the continent? I hypothesise that volcanic activity could have generated enough ice-free terrain, or sub-glacial caves, to allow species to persist locally. Molecular techniques can be used to assess postglacial range changes that have occurred since the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), approximately 18-20 thousand years ago. In this talk I will describe research that I plan to undertake – in collaboration with researchers from various institutions in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Spain – using genetic approaches to test the hypothesis that Antarctic terrestrial species survived ice ages in geothermal refugia. The results of this research will give insights into how species have responded to past climate change in the Southern Hemisphere, the evolutionary history of southern polar terrestrial species, and the roles geothermal activity can play in structuring broad-scale patterns of biodiversity.

Latest news

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    27 Jun 2013

    The Strategic Science in Antarctica conference concluded yesterday and two days of workshops have commenced. Congratulations to those who were awarded prizes for their contributions to the conference.

  • Watch the welcome message from Australia's Environment Minister
    24 Jun 2013

    In a welcome message via video from Canberra, Australia’s Environment Minister, Tony Burke, reflected on the foresight of earlier decision-makers who agreed to set aside an entire continent for scientific research.

  • Last minute information for attendees
    20 Jun 2013

    There's not too long to wait until the start of the Strategic Science in Antarctica conference, and we hope you’re as excited as we are! Read on for more information about the final program, registration, Twitter, presenters, posters and social functions.

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Key dates

  • 11th June 2013
    Registrations close
  • 21st June 2013
    Registrations at the AAD open for staff
  • 24th June 2013
    Registrations at the venue open
  • 24th June 2013
    Conference commences
  • 26th June 2013
    Conference concludes

More key dates…

This page was last modified on 6 June 2013.