Sunday, October 7, 2012

A visit to Crary Lab

Sea lice the size of a small rat. You may, and I did, pet it.  Photo courtesy of our Chaplain - Jake Marvel.
The Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Research Center is the major research facility down here in McMurdo. It is named after the first man to set foot on both the North and South Poles. I had the day off today so I joined a tour of the lab.

I braved gusts of wind that threatened to knock me over and visibility of less than 30 ft to get to the lab. When I arrived many of my fellow travelers from Christchurch were there. The first exhibit in the lab displays a stuffed Skua (a large two foot long seagull looking bird) and a stuffed penguin. Examination of the Penguin reveals that their little feathers are almost small enough that they look like fur. They have a rare trait among birds in that they have solid bones that allow them to dive.

We proceeded down the main hall and were treated to seal skulls. It turns out that over their lifetime seals that dive under the ice slowly wear down their teeth drilling their way out. When their teeth finally wear out... that's it... they are toast.

They also had jars with fish specimen in them. Many fish in Antarctica have no hemoglobin because it would freeze in the sub zero water under the ice in McMurdo bay. This results in a pale white look because their blood is clear. Creepy.

Our guide, I will have to ask his name if I catch him around season, showed us fossils of plants that are common to Asia, South America, and Africa. They have also found dinosaur bones that indicate that at one time Antarctica was a lush tropical zone. This all points to the hypothesis that much of the worlds land mass was one early in the planets history.

Every year space scientists comb the continent for meteorites. They look here because black meteorites stick out against the "white canvas" of snow.

Our guide is a vulcanologist and became very excited when we finally reached his topic of expertise. Mt Erebus is one of only two phonolite volcanoes in the world. The other is in Kenya. Mt. Erebus was named after the early antarctic explorer James Ross' ship. One of the unique properties of a phonolite volcano is that it creates beautiful black crystals (the crystals form over huge lengths of time) because of the mix of chemicals in the "feldspar" that is in the magma. Feldspar is a mix of minerals that make up continents according to our guide. Another property of Mt. Erebus that makes the volcano rare is that it is one of only six or seven volcanoes that sport a pool of exposed melted lava inside their crator.

We concluded our tour with a visit to the aquatic lab in the basement. To our amazement the scientists down there have prepared a sub aquatic petting zoo for their guests. Inside were a collection of sea spiders, sea slugs, a giant (HUGE) sea lice the size of small rat, some shrimp, and a few small fish. I washed my hands, plunged them into the sub zero water, and let the orange sea spiders who are about 5 inches wide and three inches tall, crawl all over me. The gigantic sea lice hid... but I gave him a poke... for Texas.

The Crary touch tank - photo courtesy of our Chaplain - Jake Marvel

Our guide said that Antarctica boasts a wide range of sub aquatic creatures, such as that sea lice, that are many times larger than their warmer cousins. They are not sure if it is the lack of predators, or the large amount of oxygen in cold water, that is responsible for this trait.

I forgot my camera but asked some tour mates if they would send some pictures. If they do I will post them up.


  1. Fascinating! I've already learned a lot from your blog. Had no idea about the phonolite volcano! I'll have to do some research about the geology of Antarctica.

  2. Here is the timelapse video of builing the ice pier. Way cool!

  3. Here is a time lapse of builing the ice pier. How cool!


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