Why Does the Keystone Species of the Southern Ocean Need an Awareness Day?

A krill expert explains her decade-long love for the small but mighty crustacean

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Why Does the Keystone Species of the Southern Ocean Need an Awareness Day?

If you add up all the time that Kim Bernard, Ph.D., a South African marine biologist and associate professor at Oregon State University, has spent in Antarctica studying krill, it’s almost 3 1/2 years. She founded the Zooplankton Ecology Lab nearly 10 years ago within the school’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and has spearheaded research focused on biological hot spots along the warming Antarctica Peninsula and krill reproductive success, among other things.

Marine biologist and krill expert Kim Bernard, Ph.D., is in the Antarctic Peninsula conducting research on krill.
Ryan Gasik

Why is Bernard fascinated with the thumb-sized crustacean? Is it that almost every other species in the Southern Ocean relies on Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) as the center of the region’s food web? Or the critical role krill play in the carbon cycle, annually sinking the equivalent of the carbon produced by 35 million cars?  Is she concerned that impacts from ever-increasing temperatures and concentrated fishing are leaving fewer krill for Southern Ocean predators, such as penguins, seals, and whales? All of the above, maybe?

This interview with Bernard has been edited for length and clarity. 

Stay tuned for more updates from Bernard and the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project as she provides her krill expertise in the lead-up to the first World Krill Day on August 11.

Q. What exactly do you study in Antarctica?

A. For most of the last 10 years, I’ve been studying Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, at the western Antarctic Peninsula. I’m interested in the role krill play in the Southern Ocean ecosystem and how climate change and fishing pressure might affect this role in the future. At the moment, my team and I are at Palmer Station for the Antarctic winter on an National Science Foundation-funded project studying young Antarctic krill and how they’re uniquely adapted to survive the harsh winter months when food is scarce.

Antarctica
Mount Williams, in the Antarctic Peninsula.
Kim Bernard

Q. How many times have you traveled there to conduct research?

A. I’ve spent five summer seasons and one winter at Palmer Station for a total of more than 30 months. I’m currently in my second winter here. I’ve been on five research cruises to the Antarctic and five to the sub-Antarctic, for about 11 months in total.

Q. Few people get to see Antarctica in person. What’s your favorite part about going to Antarctica?

A. I love how relatively untouched Antarctica is by humans. Back home, you see our influence everywhere, and nature—where it exists—is confined and controlled by humans. In Antarctica, you’re fully aware of how small you are, as a human; how insignificant. Maybe that sounds like a bad thing to some people, but it’s that feeling of complete awe and wonder that brings me back time and time again. When I stand on the top of the glacier behind Palmer Station and look out toward Mount Williams and beyond, I breathe in that cold, crisp air and feel that I’m a part of something much bigger than myself and much older than civilization. It’s truly wild here.

Q. How did you first become interested in studying Antarctic krill and other vital zooplankton species that live in the Antarctic?

A. I grew up exploring the shorelines and rock pools of my native Eastern Cape coastline in South Africa, so I’ve always had an affinity with the ocean—and knew from a young age I wanted to protect it. I remember, when I was about 13 years old, my father telling me about some Antarctic scientists he knew who had just returned from a two-month research cruise to “The Ice.” The Ice?! I knew immediately I had to go to that place. The idea of spending months at sea in Antarctica suddenly became a passion for me, and my trajectory was set.

I originally wanted to work on cetaceans, but I quickly realized that I could do meaningful work if I focused on the organisms lower down the food chain. As a graduate student, I worked on sub-Antarctic zooplankton and was fascinated by their tiny, delicate bodies and the disproportionate role they played in the food web and biogeochemical cycles.

While conducting my post-doctoral research, I was introduced to Antarctic krill and became completely enamored with them. I had worked on much smaller zooplankton in the past, and it was fun working with a species I could clearly see without the aid of a microscope. 

Q. What keeps you inspired and motivated to continue pursuing your work?

A. The knowledge that the research I do may contribute ultimately to protecting Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Antarctic krill are crucial to the health of this ecosystem, so the more we can understand about krill, the better our understanding of the ecosystem as a whole. I’m also constantly inspired by the students and early career researchers I get to work with. They’re driven and passionate, and knowing I can positively influence their trajectory by supporting them and providing opportunities for their growth and leadership motivates me to keep going.

Q. What research findings about Antarctic krill have surprised you the most?

A. Some of the earlier work on Antarctic krill that showed that their larvae must swim up from the ocean depths about 800 meters or more to reach food near the surface. That’s the equivalent, given the difference in size between a human body and a krill, of a human swimming more than 20 miles. That’s nuts! I also think the recent work showing how much carbon that krill repackage into poop and send to the seafloor is amazing: 23 million tons of carbon a year.

From my own research, I was most surprised to discover that young krill do better in the winter if they eat other zooplankton rather than if they eat microscopic algae. This turned a long-held theory on its head, so that was quite exciting. What I’ve found studying Antarctic krill is that as soon as you answer one question, you end up with about 10 more. It’s a never-ending detective story!

Field-work team
Kim Bernard (center) with the all-female field work team for her current krill research. From left to right: Julia Fontana, Andrea Nodal, Kirsten Steinke, and Giulia Wood.
Angela Klemmedson

Q. Men have dominated the scientific research industry for decades. What has your experience been as a female scientist in Antarctica?

A. It’s been mixed. I’ve been fortunate to have worked alongside some incredible women polar researchers who have inspired me and supported my success—people like Dr. Debbie Steinberg of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in the U.S. and Dr. Bettina Meyer of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany.

I’ve also worked with men who’ve seen my potential and given me leadership roles, encouraging me to stay in the field. Unfortunately, as with many women in oceanography, I’ve also had to deal with bullying, intimidation, and harassment from men while in the field. In the past, I used to think it was something I had to accept, almost like a rite of passage, but now I stand up for myself and other women in the field and have zero tolerance for any of that behavior. 

My current and last field teams have been all women, and I’m really proud of that. We’ve developed a sisterhood, and we encourage and uplift each other. I think it’s so important that young women are given opportunities to shine and excel in science—and especially in field work. Women are strong and resilient, and we know how to get things done. We also know the value of a one-song dance break in the middle of a night shift at sea.

Kim Bernard
Kim Bernard.
Shawn Wilson

Q. Do you have any words of wisdom for other female scientists who might feel discouraged within the research community?

A. A woman’s place is anywhere she wants it to be—from the deepest of seas to space and anywhere in between! You deserve your place in STEM; don’t let anyone make you feel otherwise. How do I know this? Because girls run the world. Just ask Beyoncé.