During Scott’s famous Discovery Expedition 1901 – 1904, the team collected numerous samples to enhance the scientific knowledge on Antarctica. More than 100 years later, scientists from the UK and the USA have now analyzed some these valuable samples. Their findings give a sneak peek into Antarctic ecology prior to the extensive human activity there and the rest of the world.

The Discovery Hut on Ross Island with the US Antarctic McMurdo station in the background. From here, Scott had started his scientific and exploring expedition deep into Antarctica. Credit: Taylor & Francis
The Discovery Hut on Ross Island with the US Antarctic McMurdo station in the background. From here, Scott had started his scientific and exploring expedition deep into Antarctica. Credit: Taylor & Francis

Samples collected during Captain Scott’s famous 1901-1904 Discovery expedition to Antarctica, the oldest of their kind, have recently undergone new analysis using modern techniques providing scientists with exciting new data, over 100 years after the voyage. The new analysis, published in the European Journal of Phycology, was undertaken by scientists at the Natural History Museum, University of Dundee (UK) and the Brain Chemistry Labs (USA) to evaluate the presence of cyanotoxins - the toxins produced by bacteria called cyanobacteria. The samples were taken at a time when Antarctica which was largely unaffected by human activity, unlike the current landscape which will see drastically altered temperatures affecting the delicate ecosystem in the future.

Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) dominated microbial mat communities cover the floor of meltwater pond on the McMurdo Ice Shelf, Antarctica. The ponds have liquid water in summer and freeze to the bottom in winter. The environmental conditions are extreme and only microbial life can thrive in these unique Antarctic ecosystems. Credit: Taylor & Francis
Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) dominated microbial mat communities cover the floor of meltwater pond on the McMurdo Ice Shelf, Antarctica. The ponds have liquid water in summer and freeze to the bottom in winter. The environmental conditions are extreme and only microbial life can thrive in these unique Antarctic ecosystems. Credit: Taylor & Francis

Researchers studying the 100-year-old samples of cyanobacteria from Captain Scott’s expedition found that they provide an essential baseline for levels of cyanotoxins in Antarctic freshwater, prior to human activity. This discovery enables scientists to determine the effects of climate change on blue-green algae and their toxins in Antarctica. Researcher and lead author Dr. Anne Jungblut, from the Natural History Museum in London, said: “The results will help experts to study the effects of climate change on blue-green algae and their toxins in Antarctica, now and in the future. They also highlight the significant past, present, and future contributions of the scientists that were the backbone of Captain Scott’s Discovery expedition. These historic samples from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, and our work on them 100 years later, demonstrate the value and the ongoing importance of Captain R.F. Scott’s scientific legacy for current science challenges in Antarctica.”

Herbarium specimen of freshwater cyanobacterial mat communities collected on the McMurdo Ice Shelf, Antarctica during Captain Scott’s Discovery Expedition in December 1902. Credit: Taylor & Francis
Herbarium specimen of freshwater cyanobacterial mat communities collected on the McMurdo Ice Shelf, Antarctica during Captain Scott’s Discovery Expedition in December 1902. Credit: Taylor & Francis

Captain Scott’s famous expedition was one of the first to explore the Antarctic region, and resulted in many new advances in the fields of biology, zoology and geology. As new analytical advances are discovered, such as those which were used in this study, the ongoing importance of the voyage in tackling current science challenges in Antarctica is increasingly evident and it is likely there will be many more discoveries made from their collection of samples.

Scott (middle) together with Shackleton (left) and Wilson (right) before they started their journey to reach the furthest south at that time in 1902. The journey almost ended with their death due to inexperience, scurvy and snow blindness.  Credit: National Library of New Zealand
Scott (middle) together with Shackleton (left) and Wilson (right) before they started their journey to reach the furthest south at that time in 1902. The journey almost ended with their death due to inexperience, scurvy and snow blindness. Credit: National Library of New Zealand

Source: Taylor & Francis Group Publishing