A View to a Krill:
Antarctic Expedition by College of Staten Island Scientists
By Kenneth T. Bach and Terry
Mares, College of Staten Island
This last December, an intrepid band of
College of Staten Island research-ers headed south for the summer.
Yes, the summer. These scientists and their graduate and undergraduate
CUNY students were headed far, far southall
the way to Antarctica, where the summer sun is a pretty steady
customer. Their mission: to study small, shrimp-like crustaceans
known as krill and the birds that feast on them.
|Top row left to right:
Cristina Rhodes, Frank Brooks, Richard Heil, Jarrod Santora,
Jenny Gramza, Carol Demartinis. Bottom row left to
right: Andre Bernick, Margaret Riggi, Richard Veit,
Unfamiliar to most Americans, krill are one of the most important
planktonic (floating or weakly swimming) crustaceans in the
Southern Oceans. They feed upon phytoplankton (planktonic
plant life) and, since krill are high in protein, are an important
food source for almost all larger organisms in Antarctica,
such as mussels, fish, seals, baleen whales, penguins, and
Although Antarctic krill are small, they
are also abundant. And they just might be a valuable potential
source of protein for human and live-stock consumption. How
would wide-scale commercial krill harvesting affect the delicate
and protected Antarctic ecosystem? That is what the research
team from CSI is hoping to predict, with the aid of advanced
The team from CSI was headed by biology professor Richard
Veit, who was awarded an NSF CAREER Grant for the project.
Veit, a bird ecologist and biostatistician, also served as
primary researcher. He knows the territory: this was his eleventh
trip to the frozen continent. He was joined by mathematics
and physics professor Bala Sundaram and seven CSI students.
Richard Heil, an ornithologist from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service accompanied them as they collected data in an attempt
to predict how large-scale krill harvesting might affect indigenous
sea-bird populations of cape petrels and albatross.
| Top Photo:
This rusty trolley, which took 8 people to operate, was
a means of island-hopping.|
Bottom Photo: NSF Research Vessel Gould, with Adelie
They spent a month near Elephant Island,
off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, not only observing
large gatherings of krill, but also recording in detail the
feeding behavior of birds in the same vicinity.
The expedition was funded through a grant from the National
Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs, which required
the trip to combine research and teaching. This provided the
perfect opportunity for Veit to engage CSI students in the
project. They were required to enroll in a series of courses
to help them fully understand the procedures, problems and
protocols that such a research project would demand.
At Punta Arenas, Chile, the researchers
boarded the NSF research vessel Laurence M. Gould and
headed for Antarctica. Summer there translates as temperatures
that hover near 30 Fahrenheit, winds that can gust up to 75
mph, and 40-foot-plus ocean swells vaulting over the ship's
deck. The Gould needed to deliver supplies to resident
research scientists at Palmer Station before sailing on to
Elephant Island and commencing around-the-clock data collection.
The researchers towed an echo-sounder
behind the ship, which was their window to the underwater
world of Antarctica. This echo-sounder, which works similarly
to equipment used by deep-sea fishermen, was used to locate
and study large gatherings of krill, called swarms, which
tend to ride along on the easterly-flowing current through
Drake Passage, which separates South America and Antarctica.
| Top Photo: Anchoring the
Laurence M. Gould at the Palmer research station.
Bottom Photo: The Laurence M. Gould docked at Palmer
Station. Cristina Rhodes in foreground.
As the Gould navigated northward
along six different 25-mile, north-south paths called transects,
details of the krill swarms were recorded, including their
location, density and depth. Southward bound, they recorded
data on the water's conductivity and temperature at varying
depths. The ship's location was recorded via a Global Positioning
System (GPS) every 12 seconds.
One swarm they encountered was approximately 6 miles long
and 80 meters thick. Krill swarms could involve thousand of
tons of krill and have a density as high as 10,000 organisms
per cubic meter. Why the krill congregate in swarms is unknown;
speculation about this has focused on temperature, ocean salinity,
nutrient deposits, and the behavior of ocean currents.
As they tracked the location of krill,
the researchers also recorded the species and number of birds
along the transect lines and details of their behavior. They
recorded data on the birds 24 hours a day (twilight lasts
only from 12:30 to 3:00 a.m. at this time of year). Working
in 12-hour shifts, the students stood on the ocean-tossed
deck of the ship in wind-chills that often dipped below zero
Of Cheerful Neoprene, Tiny Rainbows, Deception Island,
& Chatty Penguins
From the journal of CSI student Cristina Rhodes:
Suits are supposed to save our lives if the ship sinksthick
neoprene of a pretty intense orange that makes you cheerful.
But it is a sobering thought to consider being in the
engulfing infinity of the ocean in a little neoprene suit.
The waves breaking against the ship keep forming nice
little rainbows, hinting at a note of happiness in spite
of the loud threatening hum of the wind and waves causing
tremors in the hull of the ship.
We are heading towards Deception Island. . .At first sight
it looks like a circle of mountains with no access, but
as you get closer you see a narrow passage into the heart
of the island (hence the name). . .There were Chinstrap
and Gentoo penguins, quite inquisitive! The island was
used in the last century for whaling. . .Large whale vertebras
were here and there, as well as ribs, all bleached.
There were so many penguins [at Bonaparte Point, near
Palmer Station] all around us that it didn't seem real.
Their happy chatter was noisy yet pleasant. An elephant
seal was basking in the sun.
To create a valid database, each bird
had to be continuously observed for a minimum of two minutes.
The observers tracked the birds, which could fly at nearly
40 miles per hour, while team members recorded their behavioral
data (where they fly, turning patterns, water dives, sitting
on the water surface, etc.) This information was entered into
laptop computers and personal digital assistants (PDA's),
building a thorough database to more accurately generate a
bird distribution and behavior map.
Veit says that a final goal of this project is to construct
mathematical models to determine how birds may behave depending
on the presence or absence of krill in a given location. Another
goal is eventually to discover how the birds locate krill
swarms (for example, visual or olfactory cues or the behavior
of other birds or mammals) and how the birds behave when they
detect the prey, as well as how much krill needs to be present
and how close to the ocean surface the crustaceans need to
be for the birds to become interested.
Since a substantial portion of the computer modeling involves
mahematics, Sundaram, who, like
Veit, arrived on the CSI campus in 1996, was asked to join
the expedition. His first-hand accounting of how the data
is collected and what kind of data is available helped shape
the acquisition models to facilitate data correlation and
improve the accuracy of the projection model.
Sundaram also put together a computer presentation of the
research work in Antarctica for his daughter's grade school
class. "Children love penguins,” Sundaram commented,
"so I included some photos and facts for them. But more
than just the penguins, the presentation opened up the world
of science and mathematics and its possibilities to them,
awaking their imagination. I hope they will carry with them
the understanding of how penguins, birds, krill and the entire
Antarctic ecosystem are so closely intertwined with mathematics.”
Word of the excitement their presentation created soon spread,
and Veit and Sundaram were invited to visit other classrooms.
Their dynamic and engaging presentations, replete with living
examples of Antarctic krill and inflatable penguin images,
have served to instill a sense of the long-lasting and profound
effects of interdisciplinary scientific study.
Back in his CSI office, Sundaram, assisted by Ph.D. student
Jarrod Santora, face the monumental task of correlating the
20 gigabytes of data they collected at sea. Each databasekrill
population, bird population and behavior, and water conditionshas
been compiled using dedicated software packages.
These individual databases have been cleaned up and are currently
being compiled and synchronized to the same 12 second intervals
recorded by the GPS system. "Jarrod is really earning
his Ph.D. with this one,” Veit says, œand once the data is
synchronized we can move onto analyzing it.”
What do they hope to accomplish by running this data in a
To find an algorithm, or set of rules, to describe how the
birds behave in the presence of large swarms of krill. "We
want to build a model,” Sundaram explains, "that would
have these birds flying around on a computer...looking for
If krill eventually become a target of
commercial fishermen, whether to provide krill as a delicacy
or as chicken feed, scientists will have a computer model
to estimate the impact that mass harvests of krill might have
on the Antarctic ecosystem.
Modeling the Antarctic Ecosystem
Professors Richard Veit and Bala
Sundaram describe the science of their project.
Over the past few years,
we have applied recent mathematical developments to the
description of spatio-temporal dynamics to modeling the
foraging habits of birds. One goal of this research is
to learn how seabirds respond to changes in the abundance
and distribution of their principle prey, Antarctic krill,
Krill abundance distribution is affected by physical oceanographic
processes such as shear fronts and current boundaries.
Thus, models of krill and its predators involve the interplay
of Eulerian and Lagrangian dynamics. One novel approach
we have been exploring is "agent-based” modeling,
in which seabird and krill dynamics are considered independently
and œlocal” rules of engagement constructed for their
The rules themselves can be derived from observational
data, for example, by contrasting bird behavior in the
vicinity of krill swarms to that in areas lacking krill.
In turn, the foraging models will make predictions about
the dispersion of birds under differing levels of krill
abundance. Our long-term goal is to forecast the impact
on seabirds of changes in krill stocks. Changes in krill
stocks now seem inevitable, due both to changes in climate
and future commercial harvesting.
For several consecutive Decembers, groups of undergraduate
and graduate students will help to survey the insular
shelf north of Elephant Island, recording the abundance,
distribution and behavior of seabirds. Krill abundance
is recorded using echo-sounders and corroborated by net
hauls and visual sampling. Physical oceanographic characteristics
are recorded at the same time. Assessing the correlation
between these voluminous sets of spatio-temporal data
takes considerable effort, and we expect the job will
take about four months. The primary objective will be
to quantify the linkage between prey abundance and bird
Our teaching goals are, first, to introduce urban college
students to a spectacular and economically important ecosystem.
Through their work on an oceanographic research vessel,
students will be exposed to a diverse research topics
and methodologies, ranging from behavioral ecology to
physical oceanography. On this recent trip, for example,
a number of our students assisted a research group from
the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute with their experiments
on plankton larvae.
Second, back at their campus, students will participate
in our development of the models for analyzing and describing
the data. This is facilitated by the requirement that
all students selected for the trips are required to take
courses in mathematical and statistical modeling prior
to being selected.
Our December expedition culminates several years of collaboration
in research and teaching, notably team-taught courses
in Mathematical Biology at the undergraduate and graduate
level. One such course will be offered in the Biology
Program at the Graduate Center this fall. For more information
about these courses, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
(for Veit) or email@example.com
At present, only a small amount of krill
harvestingapproximately 400,000 tons per yearis
taking place because it is an expensive proposition. Norwegians
consume krill in the form of a high protein paste and the
Japanese enjoy them cooked and peeled, much like shrimp.
Currently, there is no supply route or transportation infrastructure
in place to move harvested krill to destinations worldwide.
Veit recalls that the Soviets used to send factory trawlers,
idle during the harsh Russian winters, to harvest krill. Although
it was a large-scale operation with 10 to 12 factory-sized
trawlers, the Soviets never made a profit. Once the former
Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the new Russian
government abandoned the harvests for economic reasons. However,
once the logistical problems have been sorted out regarding
the mass harvesting of krill, commercial fishermen may turn
to krill as a new protein source in feeding human and livestock
populations. The data collected and the models developed by
the researchers at CSI may aid in the formulation of international
policy as we feed our world and protect the delicately balanced
As for Veit, he plans to head back to Antarctica again at
the end of this year to conduct further research. His current
NSF grant, which provides $85,000 per year for four years,
ends in 2004. College of Staten Island students with a taste
for adventure and who don't mind the heavily layered look
will once again be able to join him.
Together, they will help to decide whether the future of planet
earth just might include krill-burgers.