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19 January, 2003

Meet the Wingless Flies

I was alone in the F6 hut when I heard a knock on the door. It didn't register at first, because there is NO one for miles around except my own team, and they surely don't knock. I opened the door thinking maybe someone was back early and knocking the dirt off their boots, and I found myself looking into the faces of two smiling strangers! It took a few seconds for me to close my mouth and recover enough to say, "Hello." They introduced themselves as part of the Kiwi expedition camped near Canada Glacier. I invited them in and fed them some chili I had just cooked up.

Roman Türk from Austria is a scientist studying lichens that live in high altitudes. He often finds them on the mosses of the streams that we are studying. Recently, he was near the South Pole for a few weeks looking for lichens on the mountains there. He was very excited to say he had located some; the first to do so.

Liam Nolan, a secondary school science teacher from New Zealand, is in the Dry Valleys doing field work as part of a sabaticcal he is using to earn his master's degree. He is collecting collombola, or springtails. They are small insects he says he finds under rocks near the streams or in the wetted zones. I had read about "wingless flies" and he says this is it! This is one of the largest land inhabitants that lives in Antarctica all year long. I expected them to be a quarter to one-half inch long, but they are only one to two millimeters long. On a piece of white paper they looked like a speck of pepper. With a hand lens I was able to count their six legs and see their three body parts, (head, abdomen and thorax), and their two antennae.

Liam is looking at their DNA and trying to get an idea of the different species that are living in the Dry Valleys, where they are located, and about how many are here. He says that he often finds the collombola on rocks with red spiders that are even smaller.

Both Liam and Roman go through the Dry Valleys looking for life, but to find it they must get down close to the ground with a hand lens. The life they are studying, like our algae and moss, are completely dependent on the availability of water. Also, like the mosses and algae, the lichens and collombola have adapted to the harshest environment on earth. The collombola know when the weather is going to turn. They evacuate food they have eaten from their bodies so it won't freeze inside of them. They produce an anti- freeze protein and then go into a hibernative state until the weather becomes favorable for life.

Robert Scott's assessment of there being no life in the Dry Valleys was wrong, but it is easy to see why he thought so. He needed a hand lens and the patience to crawl around on the ground, or to pick up rocks to look at their undersides!

1. Liam is holding the hand lens while Karen tried to photograph the moving springtails.

2. Liam trying to hold the hand lens for us to take a closer look at the collombola.

3. Springtail through the hand lens. Can you see his body parts?</

4. Another close-up of the little guys.

5. The springtails on the side are in focus, while the ones on the bottom are just far enough to be out of focus. They were moving quite a bit, so getting their picture was a challenge!

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