Deception Island (62°57'S, 60°38'W) ranks among the most unique ecosystems on earth. It is an active volcano in the South Shetland Island near the Antarctic Peninsula with exceptionally rare and diverse flora. Our research has found that this island is also a hot spot of fungal diversity in Antarctica with extraordinary species present.
The island has a protected harbor (with only a narrow opening through which ships may pass) and was used extensively by early whalers. In 1906, Norway began using the site as a port to anchor factory ships for processing whales for oil. Several years later in 1912, Hektor whaling station was established onshore by a Norwegian company and operated until 1931. The British also had a presence on the island beginning in 1943 when they established “Base B” among the abandoned buildings of the whaling station. They used the base until 1969 at which point the base and many of the other buildings were damaged by mud and ash floes resulting from a volcanic eruption.
Our research on Deception Island consists of two main areas of study. The assessment and characterization of deterioration within wood at the historic whaling station located at Whalers’ Bay (just north of Neptunes Bellows), and investigations of fungal diversity on the island. With soil temperatures that range from freezing to 90 °C, the island has unique conditions for a polar location.
There is very little known about the diversity of microorganisms in Polar Regions despite the fact that microorganisms are fundamental to ecosystem functioning. Our research combines taxonomic and genomic studies to provide new insights into what microbes are present and how they function in this fragile and unusual ecosystem. In addition, results are providing important new information on the type and extent of degradation found in the historic wooden structures and are needed to develop conservation plans to protect the polar heritage that exists on the island.
As part of our NSF funded research, we have travelled to Deception Island on the R/V Laurence M. Gould Research vessel and also traveled with a British Antarctic Survey expedition on the HMS Endurance. Although time at the site has been limited due to weather conditions and the ships tight schedule we were able to assess the decay present in the historic structures and also to obtain samples of wood and soil. These samples have proven to be very important for providing new information on what microbes live on the island, what strategies they use for survival in this extreme environment and aspects of their biology and ecology that is providing a better understanding of the crucial role they play in ecosystem functioning. Our recent findings are opening new avenues for research and demonstrating the need for continued study at this unusual “hot spot” of diversity in one of the most extreme environments on earth.
The caldera at Deception Island with the remains of the historic whalers station near the shore. The National Science Foundation research vessel, Laurence M. Gould, provided lodgistic support for the investigations made at the island.
Several of the historic buildings at Whaler's Bay
Large amounts of historic wood remain on the island including the remnants of many wooden barrels used to store whale oil.
Many of the historic building have severe decay. Research has found many unusual decay fungi are responsible for the attack. These fungi are active and continue to degrade the historic woods. A more diverse group of fungi have been found on Deception Island than anywhere else in Antarctica.
Decaying historic boat on shore at Deception Island