Technology in Antarctica

In this learning sequence, discover the different types of technology that scientists use to better understand the animals of the Antarctic. First review the Antarctic food web and identify the keystone species and feeding relationships between these animals. Through guided research find out about scientific studies of animals in a marine ecosystem. Identify how technology is used to monitor and track the movements of animals and learn more about their behaviours. Create a scientific report about the role technology plays in understanding Antarctic life.

Setting the scene

What’s a keystone species?

Conduct a brainstorm, list as many different types (and species) of Antarctic animal. Show a gallery of images of Antarctic animals and compare your list to the animals in the gallery.

Discuss the term keystone species and what it means (plays a crucial role in the ecosystem). Ask students to predict which animal they believe is a keystone species in Antarctica.

Refer to the Antarctic food web [PDF] to identify and give reasons for their choice of keystone species.

Case of the disappearing krill

Review and build on student understanding of feeding relationships between animals in Antarctica. Provide the story of the case of the missing krill called ‘Who’s eating who?’.

After reading through the case, have students share their ideas. Ask why it is important that scientists study the animals of the Antarctic.

Explore and research

Scientific studies

Use guided research to explore how and why scientists study Antarctic animals.

Group students in pairs or small cooperative groups to research techniques and approaches scientists use to study Antarctic animals. Provide students with a copy of the Data chart: Studying animals of the Antarctic [PDF].

After conducting the research, describe the different approaches used to study Antarctic animals and group then into categories such as:

  • observation and surveying
  • tagging and remote tracking
  • sampling

List the types of information that is gathered and the technology used to support scientific study. Discuss the challenges scientists face in conducting their studies in the harsh environment of Antarctica.

Sampling krill

Find out more about krill. Provide students with access to the Antarctic Division website wildlife section. Refer to the section on krill.

Discover what krill feed on and what changes they make to their diet during winter and spring (when food is scarce).

Estimations of krill distribution and abundance are generally made from sampling the top 200 metres of the ocean, either using nets or echosounders. Why might scientists generally sample the top 200 metres (consider their food supply). Why might scientists need to sample deeper?

Scientists use various methods to sample krill out in the Southern Ocean. View the videos and articles on each of these web pages as a class or collaborative group. Discuss each of the sampling methods:

Ask students to create a brief report to summarise the different approaches scientists use to sample populations of krill.

Whale study

A key question for scientists is: have whale populations recovered after whaling?

Compare two strategies used to gather data on whale populations.

Discuss the challenges of locating whales in such a large area and any differences and similarities between each approach.

Explain and share

Tagging and remote tracking

Discuss the term distribution and how it relates to the study of Antarctic animals. Discuss reasons (apart from population numbers) that scientists may study whales – for example patterns in migration, breeding and feeding. View the satellite tracks of humpback whales that had been tagged and monitored in the article: Migration and movement.

What does satellite tracking inform scientists about whale movements? How might that be useful for human-whale interaction such as shipping and oil and gas exploration?

Discover more about whale tracking and how new technology will enable scientists to get a much clearer understanding of a whale’s feeding behaviour. View the video: Antarctic minke whale tagging

Questions to pose prior to viewing include:

  • What species of whales are being studied?
  • What do scientists hope to learn?
  • How do scientists safely attach a tag to a whale?
  • Why use short term tags and long term tags?

Satellite tracking of penguins

Discover the types of information scientists gather about penguins by tagging them and monitoring them remotely. Refer to the article: Satellite tracking.

Ask students to collate and review the information they have collected during the inquiry to answer the question: How does technology enable scientists to learn about Antarctic animals?

Encourage students to use examples when making claims about the benefits of using technology.

Elaborate and apply

Sea ice dependent species

Scientists are concerned that a reduction in sea ice as a consequence of climate change will affect sea-ice dependent species.

Some of the animals scientists are studying include Adélie penguins, emperor penguins and snow petrels.

Explain the difference between different types of sea ice. The majority of the ice occurs in a wide band around the continent and is referred to as ‘pack ice’. Pack ice is free floating on the ocean surface, while fast ice is attached to the continent.

View the video Tracking the secret life of snow petrels.

Themes to explore:

  • measuring and monitoring populations of species
  • establishing baseline data
  • using geo-locators to track petrels
  • how the study may contribute to understanding impact of changes in sea ice in the long term

Read the article Adélie penguin population dynamics: 18 years in a colony

Themes to explore:

  • importance of ice to Adélie penguins’ survival
  • measuring population numbers
  • survival rates of young Adélie penguins.

Read the article Emperor penguins – survival through the ages, and watch the accompanying video about the research [YouTube].

Consider these points:

  • when fast ice extends a long way out, emperor penguins may have to walk longer distances across the ice before they reach the pack-ice where they can forage
  • fast ice provides emperor penguins with a breeding platform. This platform is needed for the entire duration of the chick-rearing period. If the fast ice disappears early the chicks may not be ready to go to sea.
  • rises in maximum daily temperature and the emperor penguins’ survival.

Evaluate

Scientific report

Develop a report on an approach used to study Antarctic animals based on a type of technology. Alternatively develop a report on what scientists have learned about a particular species through a range of approaches.

In the report cover points such as:

  • what the scientists aim to discover
  • how the technology/technologies operate(s)
  • advantages of using the technology/technologies
  • data collected and discoveries.

Where relevant, students should support any claims with evidence and cite quotes used from their source. Share students completed reports. Look for common themes across the reports that can be discussed such as the impact of climate change.

Assessment ideas

At various points in the learning assess to what extent students:

  • identify ways scientists use technology to enhance their study of Antarctic animals
  • explain benefits of technology used in the study of Antarctic animals