University of Southern California

Splashes of Color

Tara Gianoulis, January 23, morning — There are many misconceptions about Antarctica. The first image that springs to mind is of penguins and ice and snow, but Antarctica is not only ice, and penguins live pretty much only along the coast. My dorm roommate Dr. Becky Ball, who works in the Dry Valleys, informed me that 2 percent of the continent doesn’t even have ice!

Sure, the continent is mostly covered in snow and ice. And lots of cute, funny-looking creatures — yes, penguins, but not polar bears — romp around. But there is land.

greenwater.jpgThe need to work around the land is partially what gives Antarctica its distinctive weather, and with land come other features you might not think are very Antarctica-like, such as lakes. At left is a picture of one of these lakes, taken during our trip to Cape Evans. The red and green pads are actually a kind of bacteria called cyanobacteria. They assemble into these mats, and the color comes from different types of pigments.

After more than three weeks of snow and ice and maybe some gravel, seeing green and red in those lakes was quite startling. Cyanobacterial mats are not the only place to see the color green, though. Soils harbor lichens and mosses that spring to life in the summertime. Of course, “spring” might be a bit energetic for lichens. They only grow about one centimeter a year!

bluelake.jpgI am learning a number of surprising things about Antarctica. Yes, Antarctica is mostly a blinding a white, making good sunglasses a must, but the microbial world is busy painting the landscape other colors. There aren’t any trees, but in the right places, you can still see hints of green.

Tara Gianoulis is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School.