Plants That Eat Food

At 5 a.m. we came to a stop at the sea-ice edge about 10 miles north of McMurdo Station. A single emperor penguin was asleep about a quarter-mile away, its head tucked snugly out of sight. In the patch of open water our ship had created, a minke whale surfaced. Underneath the ice plain before us, far stranger organisms were living a double life.

The ship’s crane picked up a curious contraption of rope webbing with a rubber-disc floor. It looked like something you might use to hang a giant houseplant, except it had three scientists, a generator, and an electric drill on it. The crane’s arm swung over the side of the Palmer and gently deposited the people onto the sea ice—the first time they’d been off the ship in 12 days. Three more trips of scientists and equipment followed. Read on through the slideshow to find out what they were doing:

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About Hugh Powell

Hugh is a staff writer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and is on special assignment with the Rutgers University Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences. He has previously written for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

33 Responses to “Plants That Eat Food”

  1. Ian from Sea Girt School January 31, 2011 at 11:14 am

    We were wondering about quality of life issues. We saw the pictures of the galley, workout room, and video/TV room. Do you ever get the chance to use the workout/TV rooms or are you too busy working all the time?

    • Hi Ian. We’re pretty busy, but every once in a while someone makes time to use the gym. The scientists keep talking about holding a movie night when everyone gets to take a break and gather in the lounge—but it hasn’t happened yet.

  2. Emily from Sea Girt school January 31, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Does it matter where in the ice core the mixotrophs are located?

    • Hi Emily, great question. I asked Dr. Scott Fay of Temple University and he said, ‘Well yes. That’s exactly the kind of thing we’re trying to find out.’ They sampled ice from the bottom of the core, next to the sea water, and also from within little hollows that form naturally in the ice, called brine channels. These form because fresh water freezes at a higher temperature than salt water. So as sea water starts to freeze, the saltiest parts are left out of the ice and become brine channels. ‘Inside the brine channels it’s very, very salty,’ Dr. Fay said, ‘so different kinds of creatures live there. The ice at the bottom of the core is more exposed to the ocean, and ice in the middle of the core is a more protected, isolated habitat. We expect to find mixotrophs in both places—though they may be different kinds.’

  3. Julia From Ms. Dunbar's Class January 31, 2011 at 11:19 am

    We were wondering about how cold the temperture is there now? Normal tempurture or warm for Antarica?

    • Hi Julia. The temperature has been between about 15°F and a little above freezing. That’s about normal for this time of year in this part of Antarctica. It’s the middle of the summer and the sun never goes below the horizon, so it doesn’t cool off very much at ‘night.’

  4. Ellie from Sea Girt school January 31, 2011 at 11:50 am

    The journey sounds like a lot of fun! I was wondering how long you guys stay in the lab room each day? Good luck!

    • Dear Ellie – thanks for your question. The scientists stay in the labs for a lot of the day. It depends on what’s going on. They’re here to get work done and data collected, so when the CTD comes back with water, they work long hours to get everything processed and analyzed—sometimes 18 hours per day or more.

  5. Greg from sea girt school January 31, 2011 at 11:53 am

    How much food is in a midrats and is it good?

    • Hi Greg. Midrats stands for ‘midnight rations.’ It’s served in the galley just like the other meals, so we get to choose from several dishes, like at a cafeteria. The food on this ship is really good. Midrats is often a mix between breakfast and leftovers, but we still look forward to it (especially those of us who are on a weird schedule and miss one of the other meals). Sometimes we get fresh-cooked bagels or donuts, plus scrambled eggs, canned fruit, and cookies.

      • Zachary from Holy Family School February 4, 2011 at 10:00 pm

        Just “random” things scrambled together?

        • Yep, we’re kind of at the mercy of what the galley cooks have on hand – but we also benefit from their creativity. Sometimes we have fried rice made from leftovers, and one of the cooks, Dave Trotter, makes delicious bagels from scratch.

  6. That was a huge icicle, and what was that big pole thing for.

    • Dear Matt, The pole was an ice auger. It’s a kind of giant drill with a hollow center. It goes into the ice and comes back up with a cylinder of ice that the biologists use for their samples. So, that wasn’t a huge icicle, it was a part of the ice core that Dr. Fay had brought up using the ice auger.

  7. Question from Tyler in period 5 science:
    In the article Plants that Eat Food, how would you find the very small organisms of only about 20 microns across if they are so small?

    • Dear Period 5 students. Great question! The answer involves one of the most common activities that oceanographers do: filtering. Special kinds of filter paper are made that have holes of precise sizes. Depending on what people want to isolate, they use different-sized filters. Even though 20 microns is very small, you can filter large amounts of water through paper with 5-micron holes in it, and you’ll collect those organisms if they’re present. Then you put the sample under a microscope and start looking at them.

  8. hi I was wondering if there are other species of omnivores as small as the mixotrophes, or are they a one of a kind species?

    • Hi Dan, great question. There are lots of kinds of mixotrophs. They’re not the same thing as omnivores though… omnivores are animals that eat many kinds of food, including plants and animals. But mixotrophs are creatures that can create their own food, like plants do, and also eat other organisms, like animals do.

  9. Eva from Memorial February 2, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    Do any of the penguins eat the living plants in the water?

    • Hi Eva, interesting question, but penguins don’t typically eat plants in the water—the plants (phytoplankton) are too small. Instead, penguins eat krill and small fish.

  10. Zachary from Holy Family School February 2, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    Do you have a plan if someone falls from the crane? Is it scary to be on it? How big is the gap between where the crane platform is at its highest to the ground?

    • Hi Zachary, most people don’t go up on the crane. There’s an operator’s cabin at the base of the crane, but it’s like a little room, so it’s pretty safe.

  11. Brendan from Holy Family School February 6, 2011 at 10:48 am

    If one of the scientists felt through the ice what procedures would you take to safely remove the scientists from the water and what would you do from there?

    • Dear Brendan, I asked the Chief Mate, Jace Eschete, and the Ice Pilot, Vladimir Repin. They said that it would be very dangerous if someone fell through the ice, because the water is extremely cold and currents would make it hard to get back out. So we take precautions to keep people safe on the ice, by choosing thick floes (the one we stopped on was 5-6 feet thick) and carefully probing the areas we plan to walk on to make sure the ice is solid. Vladimir told me, ‘You should tell the kids that the answer is, don’t go out on ice until the old people tell you it’s safe.’

  12. Brendan from Holy Family School February 6, 2011 at 10:52 am

    When Dr. Sanders and Dr. Gast washed them, why did they use salt water and not Distilled water to make sure any unwanted particles got into the single celled organisms?

    • Hi Brendan, that’s a great question. It does seem like distilled water would keep the samples form getting contaminated. But there’s a bigger problem—distilled water doesn’t have any salt in it, and the organisms that Dr. Sanders and Dr. Gast are looking at live in pockets of very salty water in the ice.

  13. Skylar from Brookside Middle School February 7, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    What kinds of plants did you find that eat food?

    • ‘Mostly things that are very difficult to identify,’ is how Dr. Bob Sanders answered this question for his team. So far they can find cells of plant-like organisms that have eaten food, and they can count how much food they’ve eaten, but they can’t identify them until they get home. Then they’ll do DNA analysis that will tell them what kinds of organisms they have.

  14. Maria from Brookside Middle School February 7, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    Hi Hugh Powell how do you think your trip is going?

    • Hi Maria, thanks for asking. The trip is going great! I am learning an immense amount from all of these scientific experts, and then I get to hear your questions on the blog and during live calls with classrooms. I really enjoy seeing how this scientific material makes its way from the front lines, in the middle of Antarctica, all the way back to kids who are going to be the scientists of the future.

  15. Hello I wonder wen the trip actually is over. like the blogs stopped but the trip didn’t.


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