Exploring the unique icefishes in Antarctica

Four questions for Michael Axelsson, who is on his eighth expedition in Antarctica.

This time you’re going to another part of the Antarctic continent than before – why?

Michael Axelsson with his research colleague Wim from Aarhus University

‘We’re going to West Antarctica – that is, the region that is located below the southern tip of Chile. The same rapid climate changes are visible here as those around the Arctic, while the eastern parts of Antarctica are not affected as much yet. This means that the climate, both on land and in the surrounding sea, is changing faster than the global average, and this in turn affects both animal and plant life.’

You’re going to examine something that is sometimes referred to as ‘icefish’  – what is an icefish?
‘It’s a group of fish, 23 species, that is unique because some of them lack red blood cells and therefore haemoglobin (Hb). Some also lack myoglobin (Mb). Both haemoglobin and myoglobin are crucial for oxygen transport and storage among all other vertebrates, and even many invertebrates, so the ability of these fish to manage without them is very interesting.’

What kind of research are you going to do?
‘In the part of the project for which I’m responsible, we are focusing on how the cardiovascular system of a number of selected fish species is regulated and influenced when temperatures rise, and how they can cope with the change. We ‘ll measure blood pressure and try to find out how it is regulated. We will also measure blood flows, both total cardiac output and blood flow to the gastrointestinal tract, to see how these fish lacking haemoglobin supply the gastrointestinal tract with oxygen. We will also measure total oxygen demand to see how this is affected by temperature increases. The results from our part of the project will then be tied together with the results of the other groups to increase our overall knowledge about these unique fish and try to understand how they will be affected by climate changes.’

What are you most looking forward to on the trip?
‘Above all, that I, for the first time, will have the opportunity to work with these unique fish species. And getting down to Antarctica by boat across the Drake passage between Chile and Antarctica will also be exciting. To get to Palmer Station, where we’re going, you first make your way down to Punta Arenas in Chile, and then it’s a five-day boat trip down to the station. There’s an expression, ‘Screaming Sixties and Roaring Forties’, which is about the wind conditions at these latitudes. It’s very windy, and that will make the journey interesting, to say the least. We all have been advised to take seasickness medication from the beginning because one thing is clear: there’s going to be rocking; it’s just a question of how much.’

Don’t miss the travelogue by Michael Axelsson from this year’s expedition to Antarctica! The images on the spread come from the first travelogue and the trip down to the station. The travelogue can be found at science.gu.se/expedition (only in Swedish).