An Australian scientist has named a tiny six-legged creature that lives in a harsh Antarctic environment after Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg.
- An Australian scientist has identified a new species of a tiny creature called a springtail
- The insect-like creatures are found throughout the world, but are inconspicuous because of their size
- Penelope Greenslade has named her discovery Frisea gretae in honour of teen climate activist Greta Thunberg
The creature, known as a springtail, was identified by Penelope Greenslade, an honorary research fellow at Federation University.
Dr Greenslade said naming the species after Ms Thunberg seemed apt, given where it lived.
“Climate change is particularly evident in the Antarctic because you can actually measure glaciers melting,” she said.
“It seems appropriate to call an Antarctic species after Greta Thunberg because she’s been doing such a good job of drawing attention around the world, especially among young people, to the climate change problem.”
Hidden in plain sight
Dr Greenslade has dedicated decades of her professional life to springtails, which are small, soft, wingless hexapods similar to insects.
Springtails, or collembola, are found throughout the world but are inconspicuous because they are only 1-2 millimetres in size.
They live in native vegetation and soil and help to decompose leaves, in turn freeing nutrients to help plant roots grow.
You probably have about twenty species in your own backyard.
Dr Greenslade was first drawn to springtails in the 1960s while working in the Solomon Islands, where she was paid by the Royal Society of London to collect soil animals.
Since then she has described more than 200 species and collaborated with researchers around the world in the study of springtails.
From grisea to gretae
It was while she was working with colleagues at the University of Siena in Italy that Dr Greenslade noticed the springtail she was studying had visible differences to other described species.
“We noticed there were quite a lot of locations around the continent, and on the Shetland Islands, that recorded a species called Friesea grisea,” she said.
“Now, this is very peculiar because as a rule you do not get a widespread species in the Antarctic, because the ice-free areas are pretty isolated.
“So you get different species evolving in different places.”
Friesea grisea was first described in South Georgia, in the southern Atlantic Ocean in 1897, but researchers had not examined it since.
Dr Greenslade thought that the Friesea grisea described there could not possibly be the same as the ones on the Antarctic continent, which already had significant genetic differences recorded between their isolated populations.
She travelled to the United Kingdom, where she examined specimens from South Georgia at the University of Cambridge and discovered the Friesea grisea there were significantly different to the Antarctic specimens.
“Then, of course, the continental [Antarctic] ones had to have a different name,” she said.
“Because they were no longer Friesea grisea.”
Thus the Antarctic springtail formerly known as Friesea grisea became Friesea gretae.
Staying alive by staying still
On Antarctica, Friesea gretae lives in moss and algae at Cape Hallett, one of the few ice-free areas on the continent where a small range of invertebrates live.
They feed on rotifers and tardigrades, tiny little creatures that can survive cold icy conditions by becoming immobile and losing moisture.
Despite working with springtails since the 1960s, Dr Greenslade says there is always more to learn.
“There’s always new things to discover, that is why scientists carry on,” she said.
“They’re always discovering new things that nobody else has found before and could be very important for sustainability.”