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History of Antarctic Benthic Ecology: The Lost Experiments
paul dayton as a grad student Dr. Paul Dayton as a graduate student.

In 1963 a young graduate student in marine science, Paul Dayton, went to Antarctica with his advisor. For the previous 10 years Paul had been using the new self-contained-underwater-breathing-apparatus (SCUBA) to explore underwater off the coast of California. Using then state-of-the-art thin wetsuits and double hose regulators, he dove under the sea ice in McMurdo Sound, making the first quantitative natural history observations of the polar benthic communities. In the 1967 season he averaged 3 dives a day to depths of 60m, with bottom times up to 95 minutes (my students should take note of this and remember it when you are complaining how cold your fingers are).

Dayton SCUBA diving Paul with an early SCUBA rig (in 1954).
Later in that season, diving safety regulations were established, and the predator exclusion cages and settling substrates Paul had placed at depths greater than 40m were no longer accessible with scuba. It was heartbreaking to see that effort negated. Still, there were all the shallower sites and experiments to be completed, and Paul moved forward with that work, establishing basic paradigms for Antarctic shallow seafloor ecology that hold true today.
Dayton warming in a tub Paul in hot water, trying to recover from one of the early Antarctic dives.

Others pioneered work in deeper Antarctic waters, using shipboard sampling techniques. John Dearborn sampled extensively in the First International Geophysical Year (1957-58). Even earlier, Thomas Vere Hodgson, on Robert Falcon Scotts first expedition in 1901, collected marine biological specimens. These samples from depths >200m, provided the initial descriptions of deep Antarctic seafloor communities.

Some of Paul's early work indicated that the growth rates of the large impressive volcano sponges were miniscule, with unobservable increases in size over a decade. This fit in well with the perception of the Antarctic as an extremely cold habitat, where biological processes move slowly.

An early photo of Anoxycalyx joubini An early photo of Anoxycalyx joubini.

In 1974 Paul took his graduate student John Oliver to Antarctica. Together they expanded the view of the benthic communities to include soft bottom ecology as well as hard substrate ecology. And still, those cages and plates at depth remained, becoming colonized by animals, developing a record of settlement, growth, competition and predation.

An early photo of Dr. John Oliver An early photo of Dr. John Oliver.

In 1988, John Oliver took his graduate student, Stacy Kim, to Antarctica. After 20 years, we could still see some of the initial experiments that Paul had set up in shallow water, and we knew that the deep water experiments were still out there, rich with data. Stacy eventually carried out the ASPIRE project, defining the recovery dynamics of benthic communities near McMurdo Station following installation of a sewage treatment plant.

An early photo of Dr. Stacy Kim (juvenile stage) An early photo of Dr. Stacy Kim (juvenile stage).

In 2003, Stacy met Bob Zook, a communications technician at McMurdo who also was skilled at engineering, diving, and snowmobile repair. He was so good, in fact, that she convinced him to join the ASPIRE team the following year. Some of the limitations and frustrations encountered during this work led Bob to develop the concept of a small ROV for Antarctic use.

Bob Zook, getting ready for a dive Bob Zook, getting ready for a dive and wondering why he gave up that cushy comms job.

In October 2007, we will be taking the ROV SCINI to Antarctica. Its been 40 years since Paul put his experiments on the seafloor, and that kind of temporal perspective into ecological processes is exceptional, especially in a polar system. We hope to use SCINI to search for and relocate the lost experiments, and to image-sample them for the species abundances and organism sizes that have grown over the intervening years. This goal requires the memory and snapshots that Paul has of the original lineups (his work started well before GPS became available) to relocate the sites, and Paul's original notes on experimental layouts to determine original deployment dates and configurations.

Survey photo How GPS was done, before there was GPS. This photo documents the landscape features and flags that were lined up to relocate sites.
In combination with work that has been conducted by John, Stacy, and others, this will provide a time series spanning four decades. Rescuing this temporal sequence will not only be incredibly ecologically valuable, it will be personally satisfying, combining as it does large scale ecological questions on climate change and cyclical variability, multigenerational perspectives, historical reconstruction, and detective work.
Survey photo The animals have changed; these crinoids and sponges are growing on a substrate that Paul placed in 1974.
Scott's Science hutt Some aspects of science haven't changed much. The interior of Scott's Discovery hut still contains glassware and instruments used by scientists on the first expeditions.
This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. ANT-0619622 ( Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.