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Expedition to East Antarctica

Alan Flurry

In Spring 2023, UGA biologist Holly Bik is leading one of five teams of scientists on a research cruise to one of the most remote and understudied places on Earth. From March 6, the group departed from New Zealand and cruise west along the Antarctic continental shelf to South Africa. In all, more than thirty scientists and graduate students will be part of the two-month expedition aboard the Research Vessel – Ice Breaker, The Nathaniel B. Palmer.

Bik, assistant professor in the department of marine sciences, will lead a team hauling up mud along the way to study the evolution and ecology of free-living marine nematodes. Nematodes are mostly microscopic and translucent — they look like specks of dust on a glass table. 

“Antarctica is also the only place in the world where the deep sea emerges into cold, shallow waters,” Bik said. “Deep-sea and shallow-water species with very different evolutionary histories coexist. Pairing deep and shallow samples lets biologists answer questions they just can’t anywhere else, where environmental differences between locations may explain natural patterns.”

Bik’s investigations aboard the Palmer will pit evolution against location: which one most strongly shapes the role that organisms play in an ecosystem? She'll be answering this question using nematodes and leading-edge genomic technology never before applied to these regions. Nematodes are important for their physical influence on seafloor ecosystems and for their role in the food chain, but Bik’s work promises to be broadly applicable to biological patterns for many small, not-so-mobile organisms in muddy ecosystems. Evolution vs. location will become even more important as global climate change continues to cause mass range shifts.

“Because so many of them exist everywhere, nematodes move nutrients around and play outsized roles in physically shaping soil-based ecosystems,” Bik said. “Knowing more about nematodes helps us understand how ecosystems function (and how humans can affect and manage ecosystems) everywhere.”

Bik expects to formally describe at least a hundred new nematode species from this cruise alone. She works at the edge of what’s possible with scientific imaging — nematodes are too small to document with a regular camera, too big to apply bacterial methods to, and too round for typical sample-flattening microscopes.

Look for more news and updates about Bik’s research project aboard the Palmer.


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