Studying Antarctica's Marine Organisms main content.

Studying Antarctica's Marine Organisms

Part of Irma and Paul Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life.

Donal is a marine biologist who is interested in animal physiology. He explores how animals live and thrive at very cold temperatures, particularly in the early stages of life. In his spare time, he likes to study the early stages of Antarctic exploration! Donal has a real interest in the early explorers and the history of Antarctica.

AMNH: Why should kids know about Antarctica?

Donal: Kids should know about Antarctica because it's one of the most extreme continent on this planet, with 70% of the world's fresh water, and because the ozone depletion is there. The Antarctic is like the canary in the coal mine: if we keep a watchful eye on it, we'll know if things such as global warming and climate are changing everywhere."

AMNH: How can students everywhere be good stewards of our least known continent?

Donal: Be careful about what you put into the environment and the ocean. Be a careful, educated consumer. We all need to question where the food we eat comes from. Perhaps it could be a school project to ask your local store, or restaurants such as McDonalds, if they are selling Antarctic fish. Active consumers can make a difference. For example, "dolphin-free tuna" happened because people spoke up."

Field of Study Marine Biology
Hometown Dublin, Ireland
Favorite Middle/High School Subjects Science was the "least painful."
Least Favorite Middle/High School Subjects English Composition
Thoughts on Middle/High School "I hated English Composition. My parents got so frustrated with me, just staring at a blank page, unable to come up with an idea. It would take me half a day to write something. Now it's my bread and butter. I have to write up papers about all of my work."
Interests in Middle/High School Snorkeling off the coast. "There are wonderful lush kelp forests in the Irish sea, and I loved to fool around exploring them with my friends."
Interests Today "If you find a job that's interesting, then your profession becomes your hobby. Even in my time off I like to do things related to my work. I also enjoy playing the guitar, camping, boating, and scuba diving."
Life Lessons from the Field "You need discipline... in your training and meeting deadlines and doing things that you don't necessarily enjoy in order to get to do the exciting parts of the job." Major Influences "My uncle encouraged me to take a job doing something that interested me, or even volunteer for free, rather than trying to make money. That was the best advice, to find something that excites you and do that. It will help you much more than making an extra dollar."
Number of Trips to Antarctica So Far Ten

AMNH: What's so important about your field of study in Antarctica?

Donal: Seventy percent of all marine mammals go though some type of larval stage. It is important for us to understand their complex life cycles so we can find out how their populations reproduce and how they live. Without accurate information about fish reproduction cycles and diet, we could remove a vital component of the food chain, or wipe out an entire fish population. This is vital for the fishing industry. We study animals to understand how they have adapted to the conditions of Antarctic waters. We work with sea urchins and sea stars because they produce lots of eggs. It's a mystery to us how these baby urchins and sea stars survive in such cold conditions, with so little food, and limited sunlight.

AMNH: If you're working with eggs and babies, you must need to get to Antarctica earlier in the season than most researchers do.

Donal: That's right. We usually go during Winter in August, to get everything set up. The trigger for the animals is the Sun coming up in August. We punch a hole in the sea ice and construct a hut over it to keep it warm In September, scuba divers go about six to eight feet below the surface, under the cover of sea ice, to collect the animals from the sea floor when they are ready to spawn. I used to dive myself, but don't anymore.

AMNH: Wow. What's the water like under