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Richard Lee collecting bugs on Torgersen Island.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Richard Lee examines a piece of dry Prasiola crispa, a green algae underneath which Belgica antarctica like to live, on Torgersen Island. Lee's arrival in late December coincided with molting of the adults, which only live for two weeks after spending two years as larvae. 

Not much bugs Belgica

Antarctic insect focus of new NSF-funded project

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Richard Lee External Non-U.S. government site stretches his long frame onto the cold, sharp rocks that turn every step on Torgersen Island into a potential ankle-twisting misadventure. His head tilts close to the ground, as if he is about to settle down for a nap, using the dried mat of Prasiola crispa as a pillow. Instead, he carefully flips over the Antarctic green algae to reveal a squirming mass of what appear to be black ants.

They’re insects all right, but no species of ant lives this far south, here on one of the many granite and basalt islets that mark the southern extreme of the Palmer Archipelago off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. These are adult Belgica antarctica, a flightless midge endemic to the continent. The wingless flies are ubiquitous on the islands near Palmer Station External U.S. government site, the small U.S. Antarctic Program External U.S. government site research base, on Anvers Island.

The Antarctic Connection

“We have seen more adults than we have ever, ever seen before on all of the islands. Every place we’ve gone. It’s just amazing,” Lee exclaims repeatedly as he and other members of the “buggers” team turn over rocks and algae mats looking for what the entomologists like to say is Antarctica’s biggest terrestrial animal.

The larger fauna like Adélie penguins and elephant seals only spend part of their lives on solid land. So, at a maximum length of about 7 millimeters, Belgica earns its boasting right as Antarctica’s largest land animal a bit by default.

“An amazing number of adults,” David Denlinger External Non-U.S. government site agrees, scooping up the mud underneath a rock with a metal spoon and dropping the dark-colored dirt in a Ziploc bag. “But where are the larvae?”

Today the Belgica larvae not on Torgersen, or Torgy, as the station personnel refer to the island, a short boat ride away from the base. The team digs up a few more of the adults, returns the earth to a semblance of its former state, and piles back into an inflatable Zodiac boat. They figure nearby Humble Island, where they’ve had their best success, will save the day’s fieldwork.

Going to extremes

Lee and Denlinger are the principal investigators on a four-year grant from the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs External U.S. government site to study Belgica and its unique cold tolerance abilities.

Both men call Ohio home. Lee is the director of the Laboratory of Ecophysicological Cryobiology at Miami University External Non-U.S. government site. His lab is interested in how different critters tolerate the cold, from amphibians to microorganisms. Lee’s specialty is bugs, and his acquaintance with Belgica goes back nearly 30 years when he first visited Palmer Station as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Houston.

On that trip, he and his colleagues first characterized the stress tolerances of this unique midge — its ability to survive extreme desiccation, losing nearly all its moisture, and survive freezing temperatures that would kill most other related species. Those data were the foundation of a grant proposal that brought Lee back to this remote research outpost on an NSF grant beginning in 2005.

Scientists Dave Denlinger
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Scientist Dave Denlinger on Torgersen Island.

“Now we’re coming back after the molecular revolution with entirely new techniques to look at mechanisms and how they tolerate these stresses,” Lee explains.

He teamed up with longtime colleague Denlinger, a professor in the Department of Entomology at The Ohio State University External Non-U.S. government site. An expert in insect diapause — basically how a bug hibernates — Denlinger is interested in understanding the biological mechanics of how critters like Belgica know winter is coming.

It made perfect sense that the two scientists should go to the extreme limits of where insects can survive and still thrive — this wind-blasted region where dark clouds often blanket the region in a Seattle-like dreariness — to learn more about the ultimate winter slumber party.1 2 3   Next