UNCW Researcher Joseph Covi Receives Grant to Continue Studying Zooplankton in Antarctica

Thursday, April 15, 2021

UNCW Associate Professor of Biology and Marine Biology Joseph Covi has received funding from the Korea Polar Research Institute to continue several years of research into a type of zooplankton that lives in the freshwater lakes of Antarctica.
This is the fifth consecutive year Covi and his team have received funding from KOPRI to study zooplankton in Antarctica. The most recent grant totals $45,300. To date, grants awarded to project total more than $220,000, not including support costs borne by KOPRI, including transportation, accommodations and meals. While some organizations award multi-year grants, KOPRI requires recipients to apply annually; awards are based on whether the previous year’s goals were met.
Covi and his team are studying a copepod known as boekella poppei. The tiny organism, which appears red to reddish orange in the water, is a type of zooplankton – small aquatic crustaceans that are among the simplest and most important parts of the food chain.
In Antarctic lakes, these zooplankton feed on even simpler organisms like bacteria, algae and other unicellular organisms, Covi said.
“Dr. Covi and his team are making discoveries that add to the scientific knowledge of life on our most remote continent,” said Stuart Borrett, associate provost for research and innovation. “This is one of many examples of the high-impact research that is a foundation of UNCW’s Strategic Plan.”
The research team, which includes Katie Reed ’21Ph.D. and graduate student Hunter Arrington ’23M, explored two main questions: How do the tiny organisms survive the frigid Antarctic winters, and what influence by humans may be threatening the existence of the species?
The South Korean research agency was particularly responsive when Hurricane Florence in 2018 severely damaged Dobo Hall and destroyed zooplankton samples Covi and his team had brought back from Antarctica. Within two months, the South Korean agency provided funding to enable team members to return to the continent to collect new samples, he said.
It was once assumed that these copepods survive winters in Antarctic lakes because the water never really freezes. But during a KOPRI-funded 2019 expedition to Antarctica, Reed put down sensors that proved the lakes do freeze solid.
But the organism’s cell structure helps it become dormant rather than succumb to the subzero temperatures, Covi said. “It can shut down all at once, by acting as one cell, to go dormant,” he said. The organism's greatest chance of survival comes when it embeds in sediment that does not allow oxygen in.
The team is also studying how climate change and air- and water-borne chemicals – specifically PCBS – are affecting the lake-dwelling copepods in Antarctica. PCBs get to the continent through atmospheric flow (sticking to snowflakes, for example) or are transported via the food chain by sea life, birds and marine mammals, he said.
“Everything is connected,” Covi said. “The marine environment is closely connected to these freshwater lakes.”
-- Tricia Vance

Katie Reed '21Ph.D. led an expedtion to Antarctica in 2019, one of several visits conducted as part of the team's research. 

Katie Reed '21Ph.D. led an expedtion to Antarctica in 2019, one of several visits made as part of the team's research.