What We Can Learn from Studying Antarctic Krill

Bring Antarctica into your classroom with three STEM-oriented lesson plans that teach students about krill and its role in the global food web.

Krill is a small, shrimp-like crustacean. There are approximately 85 species of krill on the planet, one of which is Antarctic krill, the foundation of the Antarctic food chain and a primary source of nourishment for whales, penguins, seabirds, squid, and seals. Antarctic krill live in huge schools, called swarms, sometimes miles long and deep, and though they are one of the most abundant species on the planet, they are under threat from increasing human activity and rapid environmental change.

Data collected by Saildrone during the first-ever unmanned circumnavigation of Antarctica will help scientists to understand the challenges these tiny creatures face and what that could mean to the Antarctic ecosystem as well as to other fish species that feed off of them.

Antarctic krill feed off of the algae that live on the underside of the ice shelf. They comb the surface with rake-like setae (bristles) scraping the algae off the ice. The ice pack also provides protection from predators, especially important for young krill. Changes in the ice pack due to rapid warming may be responsible for a decline in the size of Antarctic krill swarms.

Antarctic krill swarm
A large krill swarm in the Southern Ocean.

Commercial fishing of Antarctic krill is regulated by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). This international group sets limits on how much krill can be caught, but still, nearly 100,000 tonnes of krill are fished every year—that’s about the same as four Statues of Liberty! Managing sustainable catch levels is a complicated job dependent on an accurate estimate of krill abundance.

A significant decline in the number of Antarctic krill could also impact the populations of whales, penguins, and seals. Understanding the size of krill swarms and how krill migrate is a key part of understanding the Antarctic ecosystem.

Saildrone unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) will use acoustic echo sounders to collect data about the amount of krill in a given column of water as they circumnavigate the ice pack. The echo sounder will transmit a pulse into the water, and echoes from the pulse indicate the density of the krill population in a specific area. Scientists will use the data to understand more about Antarctic krill and the Antarctic ecosystem.

Researchers at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have been studying the influence of climate change on krill levels in the Southern Ocean.

Bring Antarctic krill to your classroom

The 2019 Saildrone Antarctic Circumnavigation, sponsored by the Li Ka Shing Foundation, is an education outreach initiative that uses cutting-edge Saildrone technology to bring data-driven lessons to classrooms around the world. Saildrone and the 1851 Trust, a UK-based education charity that teaches young people about science, technology, and engineering through sailing, have partnered to develop a series of STEM-oriented lesson plans, available to teachers free of charge.

The first module, which includes three lessons and a video related to Antarctic krill and its role in the global food web, is available free for teachers and educators around the world.

Read science-focused blog posts at saildrone.com/missions/antarctica or download the lesson plans.


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