A Cure for the Uncommon Cold


By Tom McKeag

When Arthur DeVries arrived at McMurdo Station in 1961, he was fresh from Stanford University where he had signed up for a 13-month stint to study the respiratory metabolism of the endemic Notothenioid fishes found in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. Notothenioids are Antarctic icefish, a suborder of the order of Perciformes. This order is the most numerous order of vertebrates in the world and includes perch, cichlids, and sea bass. Five families of Notothenioid fish dominate the Southern Ocean, comprising over 90 percent of the fish biomass of the region. They are a key part of an entire ecosystem, but that ecosystem would not exist in its robust form if they had not evolved a way to beat the extreme cold of these polar waters. DeVries would eventually find out how.

McMurdo station is at the southern tip of Ross Island, the largest of three U.S. science installations in Antarctica. Established in 1958, McMurdo had all the fea-tures of any work camp on the edge of raw nature, with few embellishments be-yond generators, supply pallets and Quonset huts. The research community there existed in defiance of the climate, rather than because of it: recorded tem-perature extremes are as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius and average annual temperatures reside at minus 18 degrees Celsius.