23 April, 2000
Earth Day; Plant Life Question 64: Are the humpback whales that spend their summers in Antarctica the same ones that come north to Alaska in our summer? Happy belated Earth Day! At Palmer Station, as at sites all over the world, people are getting together to do something to improve the environment around them. It has been somewhat difficult here. There isn't much evidence of human presence in this area to begin with, so it took us a while to find something to clean up! Yesterday the Glacier Search and Rescue (GSAR) team practiced some of their rescue skills while removing an old unused radio tower on the peak of Hermit Island. Today a group of station residents went by Zodiac to the Old Palmer site to look for lumber left there after the 1960s wooden buildings were dismantled. Eight of us hiked over the rocky, snow-covered hills, circling around elephant seals and giant petrels. The huge petrel tracks in the snow made it look as if there had been pterodactyls running around the place. There were a dozen huge male elephant seals in a big sardine pile far up the beach and tons of females and young in other areas. Several of them were sparring and doing threat displays. Very impressive even when done by the 6-foot long "baby" seals. We had to be careful not to step on the moss even though it was covered with a layer of snow. The moss beds are delicate and shouldn't be trampled. Footprints can last more than a century. Serious damage to the moss allows a green terrestrial algae to colonize and take over the area. Mosses, lichens, algae and two species of flowering plants are the only vegetation in the Antarctic Peninsula. One of the flowering plants is a pearlwort, the other a grass. On the islands around the station I have seen only the grass, Deschampsia antarctica. It grows in small, scrubby tufts in sheltered cracks in the rocks. There are over 50 species of mosses (bryophytes) found in the Antarctic Peninsula ranging from green to black colors. On some of the snow patches that have been present over the whole summer I have seen blooms of snow algae, a pinkish, unicellular organism. But the most widespread land vegetation are lichens; they are everywhere. Lichens are a combination of an alga and a fungus which live together as one organism. The alga photosynthesizes, providing energy for itself and the fungus, while the fungus provides nutrients from the rocks or soil and a protective covering. There are nearly 150 species of lichens in the peninsula region. The three major genera found around the Palmer area are Verrucaria (black or brown), Xanthoria (orange) and Caloplaca (yellow or green). All are hard, crustose lichens with a low profile. We found several pieces of old discarded wood on the heights of the rocky point to bring back to Palmer. The day was wild, with weather changing every 20 minutes from bright sun streaming through black storm clouds to gray sky and huge, wet snowflakes. It was absolutely gorgeous when a shaft of light would highlight one of the snow-covered islands in the middle of a navy sea. Even the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula were clearly visible, brightly lit in the distance. After the wonderful two-hour outing, spending the rest of the day in the lab wasn't nearly as exciting! Answer 63: While the blue whale makes the loudest sounds, long low moans a half minute long and up to 188 decibels, the humpback has the longest and most complex sound sequence of any whale, including both long low groans and moans and high-pitched chirps and squeaks. The sequence may continue for up to 10 minutes and then be repeated in the same order. The "song" may continue for hours at a time.
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