By Amanda Biederman
Chief Science Correspondent
I landed ashore at Palmer Station, Antarctica two weeks ago. In that time I've hiked up a glacier, explored a nearby island, and gone boating in the waters surrounding the station. I've had the opportunity to see a number of Antarctic animals including a Gentoo penguin, several fur and elephant seals, and many different species of birds.
I've noticed that these animals often shy away from humans less readily than animals back home. Antarctica has remained so isolated that its native fauna do not recognize humans as a threat. That should never change.
Antarctica's wildlife at the three U.S. bases is protected by the 1978 Antarctic Conservation Act, an extension of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty System that set aside the Antarctic continent for international scientific research. The Act represents one effort to mitigate the potential effect of human presence on the continent.
It also means minimizing our interactions with native Antarctic animals. We are required to maintain a safe distance from all Antarctic animals, meaning that we cannot place ourselves in a situation where we interfere with their day-to-day activities. When a fur seal situated itself outside the station boathouse earlier this month, everyone had to delay their planned operations and allow the seal to move away on its own. In the 2014 documentary Antarctica: A Year on Ice, a group of Antarctic workers had to ignore a lost seal, knowing that it would not survive without help.
However, my research involves removing a large number of animals (fishes in the sub-order Notothenioidei) from their natural habitats. Usage of Antarctic animals for science research is allowed under the Treaty System, although the protection of Antarctic fishes, as I've previously discussed, is somewhat of a complex issue in general.
So what does that really mean? As our group's graduate student, I am responsible for much of the animal care - monitoring water temperatures, cleaning tanks, and feeding. The fish are often stressed from the trauma of being caught in trawl nets, and proper fish care helps maximize survival in the laboratory. Additionally, we all try to collect as much data from each fish as possible.
So, despite several requests from friends and family members, I won't be bringing a penguin home. However, I have gained a deeper appreciation for Antarctic wildlife.