Exploring the Unknown - Thoughts on Science, Persistence, and Progress
Imagine sitting around a table with some of the world's experts on Antarctic ecology. All in all, including everyone at the table, we’re talking probably a few hundred scientific publications and nearly as many years of working in and around Antarctica. This is where I found myself several years ago, serving to support some of their technical mapping needs. The goal for everyone at this meeting was relatively simple sounding: to identify important areas to protect in and around the Ross Sea, a special part of Antarctica found about 2,000 miles due south of New Zealand.
Figure 1. A map of the Ross Sea region, Antarctica, with inset showing the entire continent.
One of the largest pressures exerted by humans around the Ross Sea is the appetite for a fish many of us equate with fancy restaurants and delicate flavors - Chilean Sea Bass - which you can buy at your local Whole Foods for $40 a lb. But the Antarctic toothfish, its real name, is not only important to the fishing industry. It’s an important player in the Ross Sea, serving as a primary food source for seals and killer whales and also as a big predator itself of other fish. So it wasn’t a surprise that everyone around the table was discussing how they might protect areas that were important for the toothfish. But when the experts were asked very basic questions about the life and distribution of this fish I was a bit shocked at their responses.
It was asked where or when the Ross Sea toothfish population lay and fertilize their eggs (this is called spawning). The answer was that we did not know. In fact toothfish eggs, larvae, and small juveniles had never been found or caught in the decades of fishing and research happening in the area. When asked about other basic life history traits of this species, like where it might travel across different seasons, again the same answer came up: We don’t really know.
Figure 2. An Antarctic Toothfish. The ecological picture of this species is still a very much incomplete picture But much progress is being made. Photo by Rob Robbins via https://www.colto.org/2016/07/06/ross-sea-winter-survey-finds-spawning-antarctic-toothfish/
Keep in mind that this was not an obscure species that had just been discovered. There was an active fishery that had a target goal of reducing the adult breeding population to 50% of pre-fishing levels - without even knowing where they spawned. This target of 50% was and is seen as sustainable. However, the toothfish picture was very much incomplete. But looking back, this lack of basic information was not really shocking after all - the Ross Sea is one of the most extreme places on Earth, especially in the winter, and the toothfish occurs at the bottom of this freezing ocean. It’s really difficult to collect data when there’s zero sunlight and it’s -70 degrees outside. The lack of knowledge on this fish was not for lack of trying, it was because studying this fish meant pushing the limits of where humans could go or where our technology could take us. Despite these obstacles the experts at the table were determined to keep trying. And thanks to these patient and persistent researchers, slow but steady progress has been and is being made on what is known about the toothfish.
The experience that day made me look at my own study species, the Adélie penguin, in a different light. Although the Adélie is one of the best studied seabirds on the planet, almost all studies are focused on its nesting season when it is on land and relatively easy to observe (if traveling to Antarctica and braving snow and windstorms can be called “easy”). But in the Ross Sea very little is known about what Adélie penguin life is like in the winter when it leaves land and migrates out into the frigid dark waters of the Antarctic for 8 months to find food. In other words, my own study species has a big gaping 8-month “ecological knowledge hole” in it (that's a technical term). It was a little embarrassing at first, then humbling, to realize this.
Figure 3. Adélie penguins head out to the Ross Sea on their way to hunt for food. The winter ecology of this species is very much an incomplete picture. Photo by D. Jongsomjit
Where do these penguins go exactly? How do they migrate? How do different things in the environment affect their travels? These are all very basic ecological questions, but conditions in Antarctica have not made them easy to answer. Over the past couple of decades ecologists have tried to answer these questions and have made slow steady gains. Without the previous meeting experience, without seeing first hand how persistence leads to scientific progress, I might have been more hesitant to try to help tackle these questions. I might have just thought it’s just too difficult, not worth it. But the experts at that meeting and penguin researchers before me did not give up, inspiring me to set out to continue seeking some answers. Today, my thesis work is focused on understanding the winter migratory movements of Adélies. It will take a big team of people all working together and it will not be easy. But with a little persistence I’m confident we can keep making progress.