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Catching Copepods: Charismatic Microfauna of the Arctic

The zodiacs take the first dive team out, past Rubini Rock, off Hooker Island. Photo by Andrey Kamenev.

The team explores the frozen archipelago for the first time in search of native micro and macrofauna. Photo by Andrey Kamenev.

Award-winning author and Contributing Writer for National Geographic Magazine David Quammen is accompanying NG Explorer Enric Sala and team on a mission to evaluate how pristine is the ocean-land ecosystem of Franz Josef Land in the Russian Arctic. 

By David Quammen

Planktonic crustaceans are not charismatic megafauna. Polar bears and walruses, up here in the Russian Arctic, get all the glory.

But the little scuttering beasties known as copepods play a hugely important role within the Arctic marine ecosystem, filling a transformational niche near the base of the food web, turning single-cell marine algae and microbial prey into animal flesh by the millions of tons.

Some experts consider them “keystone components.”

These vast swarms of copepods support the larger animals—the fishes and sea birds, the seals that eat the fishes, the bears that eat the seals—comprising the Arctic fauna that more easily meet the eye, attract the camera lens, and make the place such an amazing, cold, thrilling repository of life.

Russia’s Copepod Queen

Daria Martynova is the copepod maven on this voyage. She’s a small, forceful woman, from the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who does her work out of the limelight but isn’t shy about making her thoughts known.

Her shipboard “laboratory” is a closet-size room just off the back deck of Polaris, big enough for a refrigerator (which also serves as her desk), a laptop, a microscope, a waste basket, and a pile of waterproof equipment.

Taped to the door is a photo of an amphipod (another small crustacean, looking like a shrimp in a bicycle helmet) and a hand-lettered sign reading “Plankton Lab—Drifters Welcome.”

So last night I drifted by, around 11 p.m., in the brightness of another Arctic summer night, to watch her work.

The captain had cut the engines, in deference to Daria, and the ship was adrift in open sea. That allowed her to take her deep-water samples by hand-cranked winch without dragging her instruments behind us. She needed them to go down.

Two burly deck hands helped, both guys bundled in parkas and hoods, as she was, and me too, against the cold and the wind and the splashing water.

First she lowered an instrument called a CTD, a cylindrical sensing device that would measure temperature and conductivity (from which can be derived salinity) at every meter of the water column through which it dropped.

She sent it down to 400 meters, encompassing the deep zone of water she wanted to examine.

Once the CTD had been reeled back up, its data downloaded to her computer, and those numbers crunched, she had a profile of the water column by temperature.

Then she returned again to the deck for the plankton sample. Each time she went to her office, I followed her, because it was warm, and each time she came back out, I followed again, because it was interesting.

The plankton-catching tool is called a Juday net. It is a long tubular gizmo of fine mesh, like a wind sock, except instead of filling with wind, it strains water.

With a large red kettle bell to weight it, the Juday net fell quickly to 350 meters deep, as one of the helpers paid out winch wire to let it go.

Then, on Daria’s command, he began cranking it back up. As the net rose, it scooped in the fine creatures that swam at that depth. It came up slowly and steadily, like a cinderblock on the end of a fishing line, while the two hands took turns on the crank.

Cranking was one way to stay warm at this scientific task. In fact, it was the only way.

Daria hunkered within her parka as she watched. But she had done this before, many times, and she was inured to the cold—which is not to say, unaffected.

It was wet work, and the water temperature was roughly zero degrees Centigrade (on the very cusp of being ice), but she wore yellow rubber gloves beneath her wool ones.

When the Juday net reached about 90 meters, she dropped a heavy metal weight down the line, which was supposed to trigger a spring device to close the net’s mouth.

Iceberg Ahoy!

But tonight there was a problem: winds, blowing the ship toward an iceberg, with the Juday net trolling out behind us and the weight unable to close it. In a quick radio call to the bridge, she and the captain agreed: She’d abort her sampling process and bring the net up pronto, so the captain could restart the engines and get us the hell away from that iceberg.

The net emerged, in a tangle, and was hastily lifted back inboard. At the bottom of its tapering length was a small plastic vial, into which on an ordinary night all the depth-specific critters would have drained.

Tonight there was no such precise sample, because the net hadn’t closed—but the vial, nonetheless, was filled with dirty pink water teeming with copepods and other life.

Daria tapped that off into an empty water bottle, on which she had marked a temporary code. She held it up for a discerning look. Then I held it too. What I saw was a squirming, wriggling, twitching broth of tiny organisms that looked like sesame seeds with red eyeballs.

What she saw, as later confirmed through her microscope, was Calanus glacialis and other species of copepod, plus an abundance of additional microfauna and microflora.

Calanus glacialis is a cold-loving species, native to the Arctic Ocean. But was it the dominant species, on this particular night, at the particular depth Daria had wanted to sample?

Was it holding its own against competitors, including those warmer-water species of copepod that might intrude here from the North Atlantic?

Would there be any evidence, when Daria finished this voyage, for incremental effects of climate change on this planktonic community, so vital, so large, so near the base of the food web?

Ah, that’s where the blur of data begins to yield patterns of large meaning. That’s where copepods start to seem charismatic.

But first you need the data. Field biology, in the Arctic or anywhere, requires tough physical labor, often in problematic conditions. An iceberg, a wind, a balky piece of equipment.

There would be no sorting of copepod species, no analysis of samples, tonight.

Daria shoved the plastic bottle into her refrigerator, where Calanus glacialis could feel comfortable.

Then it was time to get some sleep. She left the lab, rushed from her work by the blast of the ship’s whistle and the start-up of the engines, delayed only slightly by the fact that she was too cold to pull off her gloves.

 

Read All Pristine Seas: Franz Josef Land Blog Posts

The Pristine Seas: Franz Josef Land expedition is sponsored by Blancpain and Davidoff Cool Water.