Antarctica’s wildlife is diverse and unique. It is the only continent on Earth which has no terrestrial mammals, but is home to a range of marine wildlife and birds, including penguins! The most common birds in Antarctica are penguins. It is home to 18 different species, including the Emperor Penguin.
The Emperor Penguin
The Emperor Penguin is the largest of all penguin species, they can be up to 130cm tall, and on average weighs 23kg as an adult.
Where do Emperor Penguins Live?
Emperor penguins, like all penguins in Antarctica, live in colonies dotted around the coastline. Emperor penguins are unique in having colonies on sea ice. Sea ice is frozen sea water which fringes the Antarctic continent. In the winter, the sea ice extent expands. In the summer, it shrinks as the sea ice melts. By the time the chicks are ready to fledge, the sea ice edge is close to the colony, so the young penguins don’t have to travel far to get their food.
There are so many penguin colonies around Antarctica that scientists are not able to count them when they visit. Instead, they use satellite data, which takes images from space. They are able to see locations of penguin colonies because of a reddish-brown mark on the ice which can be seen from space. This is known as penguin guano (penguin poo) – yes, you have read that right, penguin poo! Their poo is this distinctive colour because of the food they eat. Penguins live on a diet of fish, squid and krill. And it is krill which causes a penguins poo to be the distinct reddish-brown colour.
Krill is not only eaten by just penguins, it is a very important food source for many other species in Antarctica’s wildlife.
Antarctica’s Wildlife and its Food Web
The Antarctic food web is much shorter than most. Here in Antarctica there are only four main trophic levels shown in the figure below.
The producer in Antarctica are tiny organisms, known as phytoplankton. These organisms get their energy from the sunlight. Krill is then the main consumer of the phytoplankton, which is eaten by many other organisms such as penguins, birds, or even ginormous elephant seals! Because there are so many different organisms feeding from the krill, there needs to be lots and lots of krill available, especially as they are only 2 inches long! The top predator in Antarctica is the Orca/Killer Whale which feeds on many of Antarctica’s wildlife.
Rothera sees a wide variety of wildlife throughout the year. All of the large animals around Rothera rely on the ocean and particularly on krill as a basis for their diet; there is very little that grows on land.
Seals, penguins and whales form the majority of the wildlife seen at Rothera during the short summer season. During the winter, Rothera is ice-bound with very little wildlife. Continue reading →
There are many bases across Antarctica; around 30 countries have around 82 bases. Some of these bases are open only in summer, and others are operated all year around. The summertime population of Antarctica is around 5000 people (not including those on ships), but this drops to just 1000 people continent-wide during the long, dark, cold winter.
The relatively accessible Antarctic Peninsula has numerous bases operated by the British, Chileans, Argentinians, Czech Republic and more. Some are permanent, like Rothera, and some are operated only in summer time, like Fossil Bluff.
This video is all about living and working in Antarctica.
Rothera on Adelaide Island, western Antarctic Peninsula, is the British Antarctic Survey’s main research base in Antarctica. From here, people depart via twin otter and Dash-7 aeroplane all over the Antarctic Peninsula and into West Antarctica. Rothera is a permanent research station. Further south, on Alexander Island, Fossil Bluff is a summer-only research station.
Some thoughts on overwintering at Rothera by Iain Rudkin (aka Cheese).
Overwintering in Antarctica is a special experience. Childhood storybooks of Scott and Shackleton lend an almost mythical status to the earth’s most southerly landmass and inspire the adventurous streak in all of us. To be able to not only visit this amazing continent but to spend a winter there is a privilege that few get to experience.
Rothera Research Station on Adelaide Island is not the most southerly base by far in Antarctica lying at only 67 degrees south. However it still lies within the Antarctic Circle, the line of latitude below which 24 hour daylight or night-time occurs.
Due to the mountainous northern horizon, Rothera is subject to a period of about 2 months in which the sun doesn’t rise. The low parabola of the suns trajectory during and around this time results in the most amazing skies.
Around midwinter the sea starts to freeze and the scenery is transformed from that which greets Antarctica’s summer visitors. The birds head north in flocks of thousands and as the cold starts to grip, most marine mammals also depart. A calm falls over the continent…apart from the frequent northerly storms which also rip through the base!
Life during these winter months is exciting and fun; the highlight being midwinter – an ‘Antarctican’s’ version of Christmas. Feasts, games and presents make these days, during the period of maximum darkness hours, some of the most memorable. As the light starts to return, so does the increasing awareness that soon tranquillity will no longer be yours. The multimillion pound government building you’ve called home for 7 months will once more revert to its function as a research station and with it comes an influx of summer staff.
It is hard to convey in so few words exactly what it means to winter. Whether it be the extended alpenglow over distant peaks, or the savage beauty of a storm. The unique splendour of Antarctica during its winter is something to behold and stays with you long after leaving.
These photographs courtesy of Iain Rudkin from his time at Rothera from 2009-2012.
If you’re hungry for more, check out these videos from Rothera.
South Georgia is a Subantarctic island, north of the Antarctic Peninsula. It lies south of the Polar Front and north of the southern Antarctic Circumpolar Current front.
One of the main research bases on South Georgia, Grytviken, is occupied all year around. You can go on a virtual tour here. This former whaling station is the largest settlement on South Georgia, and occupies a sheltered bay (Cumberland East Bay).
Gytviken is now a research base for scientists, many of whom are focused on studying the hugely varied bird and seal life on the island. This biodiversity hotspot is home to penguins, albratross, fur seals and elephant seals.
The British Antarctic Survey also use ships to deploy scientists into the field. The red and white icebreakers used include the Royal Research Ship Ernest Shackleton and the Royal Research Ship James Clark Ross.The British Antarctic Survey also uses the Royal Navy’s ship, HMS Protector.
These ships must break ice as they sail around the Antarctic Peninsula. They can only break ice that is less than one year old (not multi-year sea ice), and this can be a significant barrier to scientific operations. However, with their flat, sturdy hulls and thick steel, these ships are at the forefront of Antarctic cruising.
Wildlife is often visible from the ships, and can include seals, penguins or wales. Beautiful icebergs drifting past entertain the scientists for hours.
I made this video while on the HMS Protector in March 2012.
Working deep field
Scientists in the field live in tents, and explore the surrounding territories by foot, quad bike or skidoo, depending on the territory. Life is very simple in basecamp, where we cook on primus stoves, eat dehydrated food, and plan the next day’s working.
Working deep field can mean lie-ups for days, where you hunker down to avoid the worst of the storm. Scientists need to melt ice for drinking water and to cook their dehydrated food- and of course for endless cups of tea. This short video shows what an Antarctic blizzard can be like! Video by Sam Doyle, starring Iain Rudkin.
For geologists, fieldwork normally comprises field mapping, taking rock samples, and logging sediments and ice exposures. Standard equipment includes a hammer and chisel, compass, clinometer, binoculars, pointing trowel, sample bags, tape measures, and so on.
Antarctica is an environmentally sensitive place, so we aim to leave the site as we found it, taking away as little as possible!It can be cold, so it is important to wrap up warm, wearing plenty of layers and good outer wear. The sun can be strong as well, so UV and sun protection is also essential!