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Polar Mail

December 7, 2007

Hello, my name is Sara and I am doing polar discovery research in my school and I was wondering how Antarctica is different from the other places you have explored. Thank you and good luck on your research!

Sara W.
McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania

Hi Sara,

Let's see, Antarctica is incredibly different from anyplace I've ever been. The ground is just rock, dust, ice, and snow. There are no plants growing anywhere—no trees, bushes, grasses, or flowers. The volcanic rocks at Cape Royds look like they were installed yesterday, or like they're the props put together for a low-budget science fiction movie set—lumpy round rocks, most chocolate brown, with big rectangular crystals embedded in them.

I've never been in continual daylight before, either. I'm starting to get used to staying up late writing, then going outside to find the sun just as strong as ever. It's odd to have to put on sunscreen at 2 a.m. It never rises or sets, it just creeps around the horizon all day long, so that at noon it's in the north and by midnight it's in the south.

The cold weather is not as bad as I had worried—many parts of the U.S. and Canada may be having colder weather than us right now, with temperatures in the 20s and warm sunlight strong enough to melt some shallow ponds at Cape Royds. The difference is that when the winds come up they get really strong (see Day 11) and they just keep on blowing. That cold air starts out up on the Antarctic Plateau at 10,000 feet above sea level. It rushes downhill, through gaps in the Transantarctic Mountains such as the Beardmore Glacier, and keeps spreading northward along the Ross Ice Shelf. By the time it reaches us, it's had 400 miles or more to build up speed.

The only familiar part is McMurdo Station, which is a lot like a small mountain town, with vehicles on huge tires rolling around and lots of people bundled up against the cold, most of them with red cheeks and cheerful smiles. Thanks for your question, and enjoy the rest of our dispatches!

Hugh Powell

Good afternoon,
I really enjoyed today's (Day 8) account of the struggle between the Adelie and the skua. Great photos! My question is this. Is there any emotional response from the penguin to the loss of an egg to the skua? Do they seem to get attached like you might see in other animal breeds? I felt so bad for the penguins today in the photos as their young were being taken. I know my 6th graders will ask me the same question tomorrow when we view today's entry.

Ritamarie Benoit
Duxbury, MA

Hi Ritamarie,

Thanks for your question and I'm glad you enjoyed the skua-penguin post. I asked Dr. Ainley if he noticed whether penguins get upset when they lose an egg to a skua. He said they do respond and seem to wonder what has happened. Beyond that, it's very hard to tell whether they feel the kind of terrible loss that we would feel if we lost a child or sibling, though. From my own observations, it seems that they are attached to the eggs, defend them fiercely, but don't show any outward signs of mourning if they lose one.

Penguins are extremely hardy animals and perhaps they are used to the rigors of their life. One out of every three penguins loses an egg to skuas every year on average - that's one reason they usually lay two eggs. It seems like soon after the skua leaves, they rededicate their energy to protecting the second egg. I hope this helps answer your question, and thanks for asking.

Hugh Powell