Illinois Wesleyan Biologists Return From Successful Antarctica Research Voyage
An example of a pterobranch that Illinois Wesleyan biologist Elizabeth (Susie) Balser
collected during the research voyage that she and Will Jaeckle made to Antarctica
in November and December.
January 20, 2005
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Illinois Wesleyan biologists Elizabeth (Susie) Balser and Will
Jaeckle had plenty of unforgettable experiences during their four-week voyage to Antarctica
during November and December.
• Read the summary journal entry
• Go to the Antarctica Research site
But one of the more memorable moments came when the voyage ended, and they prepared
to fly back to Illinois from Chile.
“The process of explaining to airport agents, in two languages, that the animals we
were bringing back with us do not like X-rays was most interesting,” said Jaeckle.
Somehow, they not only made it through airport security but all the way back to Illinois
Wesleyan's Center for Natural Science where the specimens, alive and well, now reside
in a laboratory refrigerator.
“We brought enough material back to the laboratory for several years' worth of work,”
said Jaeckle, who expects that Illinois Wesleyan biology students will participate
in some of those investigations. “We had not necessarily expected to travel from South
America to Bloomington and keep these animals cold and alive without irradiating them
along the way.”
Balser and Jaeckle were members of a research team that included scientists from Auburn
University and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute who traveled aboard the R/V Laurence
Gould from Punta Arenas, Chile, to Palmer Station, Antarctica, and back. The voyage
was sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
The Illinois Wesleyan scientists participated in a project headed by Kenneth M. Halanych
of Auburn University and Rudolf S. Scheltema of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
to collect and examine the larvae of invertebrates both in the water and on the sea
floor in order to explore how larval forms might disperse between South America and
Antarctica and to determine if there is unrecognized genetic variation in marine Antarctic
“We collected a lot of animals, and the question is 'Who are they?'” said Jaeckle.
“There are two ways to assess that. One is through morphology - what is their outward
appearance? The other is through genetic testing.”
Jaeckle and Balser spent eight hours each day working on the NSF-sponsored project
and then another eight hours on their own individual research projects. Balser conducts
comparative examinations of the structure and development of sea stars and other echinoderms
as well as other invertebrate animals related to vertebrates (fish, reptiles, mammals).
Jaeckle's research focuses on aspects of the life history, development, and ecology
of invertebrate animals, with particular emphasis on the free-living larval stages.
According to Jaeckle, one of the keys to their projects' success was the ability to
employ “drift tows” during part of the collection process. Rather than deploying the
plankton nets while the ship is underway, collecting samples while the ship is drifting
results in less damage to the animals.
“We've been doing drift tows for a long time,” Jaeckle said. “Although we sacrifice
abundance, what we gain in quality of material allows us to perform experiments and
have some confidence about what the results actually mean.”
Jaeckle said that while he is unable to quantify those results yet, he is confident
that he and Balser returned with some previously unidentified species. In particular,
Balser collected and observed several types of tiny animals called pterobranch with
which she has not worked in the past.
“I've never before seen such abundance or such large specimens of these pterobranchs
as I saw from our trawls on this trip. Very little is known about these creatures,
in part, because they are rare in more accessible ocean waters,” said Balser. Another
unusual find were large, shell-less, “winged” snails.
“Determining just what we have will be based on describing the development and morphology
of the animals and on genetic testing,” Balser said. “But we certainly returned with
animals I'd never seen before.”
The voyage enjoyed generally good weather and smooth sailing, noted Jaeckle for whom
this was the second trip to Palmer Station.
“There is no way to explain how remarkable the environment is,” Jaeckle said. “The
photographs are very, very nice, but they pale in comparison with primal reality.
It's just breathtaking.”
A special Web site created to document the journey, which included daily reports and
photographs from onboard the ship, drew more than 4,500 visits. That site remains
available at https://www.iwu.edu/iwunews/Antarctica.