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“Valdivia is fundamental to Antarctic science”: PhD. Kristin O’Brien of the University of Alaska Fairbanks

The capital of the Los Ríos region becomes a crucial place for researching the resistance of Antarctic fish to hypoxia induced by climate change. Alaska researcher PhD. Kristin O’Brien and chilean researcher PhD. Luis Vargas-Chacoff are collaborating to find conservation responses and strategies to this challenge.

PhD. Kristin O’Brien University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). Photo: BASE Millennium Institute / A. Bertrand.

With 25 years of experience in Antarctic science, PhD. Kristin O’Brien, professor of biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), arrived in the city of Valdivia – located in the Los Ríos region, Chile – to work with the researcher from the Faculty of Sciences of the University Austral of Chile (UACh), BASE Millennium Institute and IDEAL Center. PhD. Luis Vargas Chacoff. The aim is to study the ability of Antarctic notothenioid fish and their ancestor, Eleginops maclovinus – also known as snook – to cope with hypoxia generated by climate change.

As temperatures rise, the oxygen level in the oceans decreases, and hypoxic events are becoming more frequent and severe in the world’s oceans. To understand how this phenomenon affects them, the research team has focused their attention on the snook, a species located in the Los Ríos region, and which is the closest ancestor to the most abundant group of fish in the Southern Ocean surrounding the frozen continent: the notothenioids.

“To accurately predict the impacts of climate change on Antarctic fish, it is important to understand the ability of their ancestor, E. maclovinus, to cope with climate change. In addition, because this fish has never inhabited the icy waters of the Southern Ocean, by comparing its biology to its Antarctic relatives, we can identify the traits that allowed Antarctic fish to adapt and thrive in their frigid environment”, explains PhD. Kristin O’Brien.

PhD. Luis Vargas-Chacoff and PhD. Kristin O’Brien working at Calfuco Coastal Laboratory UACh. By: BASE Millennium Institute / A. Bertrand.

Through experiments, the team is measuring the minimum amount of oxygen that these fish require to survive, as well as their physiological and biochemical ability to adapt. The research results are expected to show the ability of these animals to resist lack of oxygen as the ocean warms and may reveal new mechanisms to control hypoxia.

“We have different knowledge that complements each other. I highly value PhD. Vargas-Chacoff’s expertise in stress physiology, osmoregulation, and the immune system of fish. It brings to the project knowledge and experience that the other members of the group do not have so that we can better understand the ability of these animals to resist climate change”, says PhD. Kristin O’Brien, who is  also affiliated with the Institute of Arctic Biology at UAF.

PhD. Kristin O’Brien’s visit included the collection of samples and work at the Calfuco Coastal Laboratory, belonging to the Faculty of Sciences of the UACh. “I am tremendously grateful to PhD. Vargas-Chacoff, the Calfuco Coastal Laboratory and UACh for this opportunity to work with them. Daniela Nualart (PhD student in Aquaculture Sciences, BASE Millennium Institute scholarship) and Francisco Dann have been tremendously helpful and important members of our team while working here. We could not have completed our research without them”, she says.

Research team at Calfuco Coastal Laboratory UACh. By: BASE Millennium Institute / A. Bertrand.

For his part, the Doctor of Sciences, Luis Vargas-Chacoff, recently appointed director of the Graduate School of the UACh Faculty of Sciences, states that “the collaboration with PhD. O’Brien and her team is essential to understand how climate change affects Antarctic fish. Our combined knowledge will allow us to gain a more complete understanding. I am grateful for this opportunity to collaborate on such a crucial project for Antarctic science”.

“As a local researcher, I greatly value the opportunity to contribute to this work. Antarctic science is not only carried out in Antarctica itself; it is vital to recognize that regions such as Valdivia play a fundamental role in this field, being able to contribute with scientific and physiological knowledge of different biological models or native species that can be affected by global climate change”, adds the UACh doctoral student, BASE Millennium Institute and IDEAL Center, Daniela Nualart.

The project is funded primarily by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and also features UAF graduate student Augustus Snyder and PhD. Yangfan Zhang of Harvard University.


By: Constanza Barrientos Soto

Main image: Research team at Calfuco Coastal Laboratory UACh. By: BASE Millennium Institute / Antonia Bertrand