UMass Boston Professor, Students in Antarctica Studying Food Source for Whales, Seals, Penguins

June 05, 2013

Office of Communications


UMass Boston Has Studied Krill Behavior in the Southern Ocean for 12 Years

The days are growing longer and sunnier in the Northeast, but a group of scientists from the University of Massachusetts Boston’s School for the Environment are still coping with teeth-chattering cold.

The UMass Boston group has teamed up with students and faculty from the University of Rhode Island to study the diet of krill off the coast of Antarctica. Group members are blogging about their experiences on a website set up for the trip, which also includes a live webcam.

Krill, a tiny, shrimp-like organism, is a key food source for whales, seals, and penguins. The research group is studying the krill’s diet during the austral fall-winter season in Wilhelmina Bay. Understanding how krill adapt to seasonal food shortages is key to a greater understanding of the ecosystem at this time of year.

“Krill overwintering strategies become the central question on understanding the Antarctic ecosystem in austral winter. Krill may take different overwintering strategies such as becoming omnivorous and carnivorous, or reducing their metabolism in austral winter,” said Professor Meng Zhou from aboard the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer.

The UMass Boston team is made up of Zhou, a physical-biological oceanographer who has studied krill for 20 years in Antarctica, School for the Environment research associate Yiwu Zhu, graduate student Bonnie Blalock, undergraduate students Rachel Greene and Thomas Heath II, and visiting scientist Yu Zhang. Zhou estimates there are 3.7 million krill in Wilhelmina Bay.

Krill are in danger of starvation during austral winter. The species feeds primarily on diatom, a type of photosynthetic algae. During the austral winter, there isn’t as much photosynthetic light, so there aren’t as many diatoms.

The Western Antarctic Peninsula is also dealing with the effects of climate change—annual winter temperatures there are 6 degrees Celsius higher than in 1950.

In order to figure out what the krill are eating, the researchers are using a device called MOCNESS, a series of nets that allow them to sample krill at different depths. They are also sampling the sediment, to test a theory that krill may feed on the nutrient-rich material during the winter months. A future experiment will involve tethering the krill—essentially putting them on a leash—and filming their response to different prey items.

After the team returns to the U.S. next week, they will continue to analyze the samples and data to better understand how the krill behave. A follow-up trip is planned for Antarctic summer, which goes from November to January. The National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs is funding the trips.

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