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We are working close to the edge of the sea ice–and the wildlife is

amazing! We've seen orcas, Emperor penguins, crabeater seals (they
don't eat crabs), and leopard seals (they eat anything they want). We've
also seen several species of birds. I'm not a bird expert, but my friend
Nancy identified them as storm petrels and Antarctic terns.

As you know, working in Antarctica means dealing with some of the most
extreme conditions on Earth. Our bodies are not naturally adapted to the
environment here; so we need to carry our "adaptations" with us. We
bring along our food, shelter, water, and warm clothing to help us survive
in the harsh environment, and we have all kinds of high-tech gear to help
us cope with the extremely cold, windy, dry conditions.

The plants and animals of Antarctica, however, don't have any high tech
gear. They don't need it! All of them have developed interesting
adaptations to survive the harsh environment, from physical to behavioral
to chemical adaptations. And many of these animals' adaptations work
together in incredible ways.

Physical adaptations are sometimes the easiest to spot. Many of the
animals living in Antarctica have outer layers of dense fur or water-
repellent feathers. Under this fur or feather layer is a thick layer of
insulating fat. Many marine animals have large eyes to help them spot
prey and predators in the dark waters. They are further protected by their
coloration, dark backs, and light undersides. This way, they are hard to
spot from above, because they blend into the dark sea floor; from below,
creatures looking up see the bright light from above, and so it is hard to
spot a pale belly! This adaptation helps predators stay hidden from prey
and prey stay hidden from predators.

Some physical and chemical adaptations are less obvious. Orcas and
penguins, for example, have circulatory systems adapted to conserve
heat. Their veins wrap around their arteries, warming the blood in the
arteries and saving energy. Plants and lichens that live on ice-free areas of
the continent have special leaf structures that prevent loss of moisture; in
the Antarctic desert, every bit of moisture counts! And because plants
have to make their own food, many Antarctic plants increase the rate of
photosynthesis to make food faster and at lower temperatures.

Behavioral adaptations are another way that organisms adapt to the
extreme environment of Antarctica. Some birds and whales migrate to
Antarctica each summer, leaving for warmer climates during the harsh
Antarctic winter. The Arctic tern is probably the most incredible example;
if you are wondering why the Arctic tern is named for an area in the North
Pole, you're right! The Arctic tern flies 35,000 km (21,750 miles) every year
in order to catch the Arctic summer for one half of the year and the
Antarctic summer for the other half!

Would you like to take a swim in water at a temperature of -2ºC ? (To
compare, consider that the average swimming pool is kept at about
25ºC.) How do fish survive in such cold Antarctic waters? Antifreeze, of
course! Certain fish have antifreeze proteins that lower the freezing point
of their blood. These proteins attach to the small ice crystals that enter
the circulatory system through the gills and prevent the ice crystals from
growing. These proteins can also work on crystals that are ingested by
the fish as they swim. This is a great example of chemical adaptation.

What's missing in Antarctica? A few types of organisms are notably
absent–there are no amphibians, reptiles, or large trees in Antarctica. Why
do you think this is? Consider the temperatures and distribution of light
annually. Think about what amphibians and reptiles need. Antarctica also
has no large land predators (though there are some, like the orca, or killer
whale, living in the sea around Antarctica). This is good news for the seals
and penguins, who live on land part of the time!

Let's take a closer look at one Antarctic organism to better understand its
adaptations–and because it's an awfully cute example!

Emperor penguins spend as much as 75% of their lives in the water; most
of their adaptations are related to their sea needs. They have streamlined,
torpedo-shaped bodies for speedy swimming; and to heighten that
streamlining, Emperor penguins keep their heads hunched into their
shoulders while swimming under water. They also press their feet close to
their bodies, right against their tails; this helps them steer while
swimming. Notice how their physical adaptation, their body shape, works
together with a behavioral adaptation, posture while swimming.

Emperor penguins dive to catch krill, squid, and fish, using their heavy,
solid bones like a diver's weight belt to stay underwater. They usually
catch krill in shallow dives (about 100 meters); but when krill are scarce,
they are able to dive for fish to depths of 500 meters. During deep dives,
an Emperor penguin's heart rate slows to a rate that is 15% lower than its
resting heart; this helps the penguin conserve energy. By reducing blood
flow to their extremities, Emperor penguins also conserve heat in their

Coloration is another important Emperor adaptation. The black and white
coloration makes it di"cult for predators (orcas and seals) to detect them
in the water. Their dark upper sides camouflage them from predators
looking down at the dark ocean, and their white undersides provide
camouflage from predators looking up at the light ocean surface.

What about all that salt? Like other seabirds, penguins have glands in the
bill to help rid the body of excess salt. After secreting salt and fluid as
droplets on their bills, penguins can simply shake them o#. And these
glands are so e#ective that penguins can drink sea water!

A combination of adaptations allow Emperor penguins to thermoregulate,
or control their body temperature. Overlapping feathers create a surface
that is almost impenetrable to wind or water. The greasy layer over their
feathers provides waterproofing; this is critical to penguins' survival in
Antarctic waters, which can drop to -2.2ºC (28ºF).

Insulation is provided in two ways–tufts of down on shafts below the
feathers trap air and a well-defined fat layer provides further insulation.
The dark plumage of a penguin's dorsal surface (her back) absorbs heat
from the Sun, which increases body temperature further.

What about all that ice? On land, Emperor penguins rest their entire
weight on their heels and tail, reducing contact of their feet with the icy
surface. They can also tuck their flippers in close to their bodies and
shiver to generate additional heat. And they have very powerful noses!
Emperor penguins are able to recapture 80% of heat escaping in their
breath through a complex heat exchange system in their nasal passages.

Emperor penguins are so well-suited to cold, they can overheat on land;
so they also need adaptations that allow them to cool down. The
penguin's circulatory system can actually adjust to environmental
conditions, either conserving or releasing body heat to keep body
temperature constant. To conserve heat, blood flowing to the flippers and
legs transfers its heat to blood returning to the heart, thus helping to keep
heat in the body. To cool o#, penguins can ru$e their feathers, breaking
up the insulating air layer next to the skin and releasing heat. Penguins
can also hold their flippers away from their bodies, exposing both
surfaces of the flippers to air; this releases heat. (That's the same reason
that a dog lets his tongue roll out on hot days!)

Emperor penguins have also developed adaptations in their breeding
patterns. Unlike other Antarctic birds, Emperors breed in the Antarctic fall/
winter, around April, laying their eggs in May. This ensures that the chicks
hatch in the late winter, when resources are becoming available, and that
the chicks have more time to develop in mild conditions.

The females don't stay home with the eggs, either! Male Emperors remain
on the sea ice platform and incubate the eggs while the females return to
the ocean to feed. To help keep the egg warm, the male holds the egg on
his feet, keeping it from coming into contact with the ice. The egg is also
covered by a special pouch that hangs from the male's abdomen,
creating a warm "nest" for the egg. To help everyone stay warm, the male
Emperor penguins huddle together to conserve heat while they incubate
their eggs. As many as 6,000 males cluster, rotating so that each bird
spends time in the warm center of the group, where temperatures can
reach 20ºC above ambient temperatures! Now that's teamwork! In this
setting, the penguins may spend most of a twenty-four-hour period
sleeping to conserve energy. They need to conserve as much energy as
they can; while incubating the eggs, the males do not feed. Male
emperors start out pretty big, up to 45 kg, so that they can go without
feeding for two or more months. During the incubation period, the males
lose approximately half of their body weight.

In July the chicks hatch. Like most chicks, they're not ready to leave
home. Without the top waterproof layer of feathers, or the thick layer of
blubber to keep them warm in the cold water, they can't enter the water.
They depend on feeding and continued protection by both parents to
survive the end of winter in Antarctica. But what if Mom doesn't make it
back in time to see the new hatchling? Dad steps in! If the female has not
returned from the sea, the male can produce a curd-like material to feed
the new born. Though this is an incredible adaptation, it is only a
temporary solution; if the female does not return shortly after the
hatching, the male must abandon the chick to ensure his own survival.

With so much riding on the female's return, the environment determines
the survival of the Emperor. If the sea ice is late in melting back in the
spring, the females have a longer journey and may be delayed. And even
if the females do make it back, if the sea ice is still too extensive, the
males may not have the energy to make it to the ocean edge to feed.

If everything goes well, after August, both parents assume responsibility
for feeding. They work in shifts, feeding at sea for approximately two
weeks at a time. When they return, full of food, they recognize their chick
by its voice. The adult regurgitates the food for the chick when the chick
touches the adult's beak in a particular spot.

Not only do Emperor penguin couples work together; the whole
community may work to ensure the survival of its members. Another
strategy employed by penguins is to breed in rookeries or colonies. A
cluster of several thousand chicks and adults provides a warm
environment and improves the chances of penguin chicks surviving
attacks by skuas, leopard seals, and other predators. This strategy is also
used when the adult penguins fish for food; fishing in large groups
decreases an individual's chance of becoming dinner for some predator.

By December or January, the height of the Antarctic summer, the chicks
have developed the layers of blubber and feathers they need to swim in
the cold Antarctic waters. They've also learned to forage for themselves.
It's no coincidence; because of the breeding strategy of the Emperors,
the young Emperors become independent when the resources are most

The Antarctic environment is a complex ecosystem. The incredible
adaptations of the plants and animals of Antarctica can teach humans a
thing or two about surviving there. They can also inspire developments in
areas beyond Antarctica; already scientists have learned much about
enhancing photosynthesis to increase food supplies. Research is
underway to create the antifreeze proteins used by Antarctic fish; this may
one day help hospitals better preserve human organs for necessary
transplants. But perhaps most importantly, the more we know about the
complex world of Antarctica, the better our ability to help protect and
conserve it. I'm glad you're joining the e#ort!