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13 - Understanding Antarctica

Using the past to research the present

Early researchers on the expeditions of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century collected the first biological samples from Antarctica. These have proved to be important for some of today's researchers who use them as a baseline for their current research.



The biologist Dennis Lillie spent most of the British Antarctic Expedition 1910 - 1913 on board the Terra Nova gathering a remarkable collection of biological specimens. In the photo below he displays siliceous sponges which had been collected by dredging the ocean bottom.

Dennis Lillie with the sponge Dennis Lillie with sponges, 1912 © Royal Geographical Society

Plunderfish Antarctic plunderfish (Harpagifer bispensis) resting on sponge at a depth of 37m. © British Antarctic Survey, Simon Brockington

Dr David Barnes, a marine zoologist at the British Antarctic Survey, has recently reviewed the scientific reports produced by Scott's expedition. There are 25 volumes about Antarctica's zoology, alongside its meteorology, glaciology, magnetic conditions and environment. He says, "The great thing about this data is that it comes from a century ago. There have been two big phases of climate warming one is now and one was between 1910 and 1945 so if we could choose when we would like to have historic data, these reports are exactly what we'd pick. We can compare growth rates of marine animals 100 years ago to how the same species is now. We can also use the old specimens to peer back into the 19th Century. I'm looking at 20 or so species in my research, and six or seven of them are recorded here in Scott's work. The descriptions have stood the test of time."



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Dr Tom Hart (penguinologist at Oxford University) explains how he uses shed feathers, shells and bones of modern day penguins to examine their DNA.

hidden camera Camera trapping using hidden devices such as this, record penguin movements over long periods of time. © Tom Hart

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Find out more at www.penguinlifelines.org

Material from specimens collected by early researchers and past expedition reports are used to compare the genetics of the penguins and to determine penguin population structure and changes over time.

Searching for penguins1. Blissett and Plumley with bags of penguin eggs 1901, National Antarctic Expedition 1901 1904, C. Royds © Royal Geographical Society.
2. Group in search of Penguins, 1903, Michael Barnes © Royal Geographical Society

In 2011 modern researchers retrieved a box of Adelie penguin eggs from the hut at Cape Evans. The eggs had been collected by members of the Ross Sea Party of 1914 as food.

Find out more on the Antarctic timeline.

Hut at cape EvansThe hut at Cape Evans today © Steve Emslie

Adelie penguin eggsAdelie penguin eggs © Tom Hart

Small fragments of broken eggs will be used for research.

Find out more at Penguins: Past & Present


Activity: researching the past

Which of these things will help scientists research the past to help their understanding of present species?

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Home | Imagining Antarctica | What, where, why? | A changing climate | Beneath the waves | Journey south | Living there today | Destination Antarctica | Under pressure | The Antarctic Treaty | What future? | Pole to Pole | Collect data | Understanding Antarctica | Glaciers