William Det­rich, pro­fessor of bio­chem­istry and marine biology in the Col­lege of Sci­enceat North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, has been awarded $639,000 from the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion (NSF) to advance his research on the effects of global warming on Antarctic fish and the role of these fish in the Antarctic food chain.

For roughly 8 mil­lion to 10 mil­lion years, the sea­water in the southern ocean sur­rounding Antarc­tica held a stable tem­per­a­ture of –2 °C (28 °F). But now, due to global warming, the sea­water is rapidly heating up, Det­rich said.

The ances­tors of today’s Antarctic fish evolved so that the frigid tem­per­a­ture was quite com­fort­able,” he said. “In fact, their body tem­per­a­ture matched that of the water. But now their habitat is expe­ri­encing unprece­dented and rapid warming.”

With dra­matic increases in ocean tem­per­a­ture occur­ring near the Antarctic Penin­sula, Det­rich said the warmer water will affect many of the bio­log­ical processes in these fishes’ cells, tis­sues, organs, and even behavior.

The NSF grant will enable Det­rich to con­tinue his research for another three years, to dis­cover pre­cisely how Antarctic fish will be affected at these dif­ferent sys­temic levels.

Will embryos develop faster and hatch during winter dark­ness before their food — pri­marily phy­to­plankton — becomes avail­able in the spring?” he asked. “Or will the warm envi­ron­ment per­turb their devel­op­ment and per­haps lead to death, ulti­mately causing local extinc­tion of these impor­tant com­po­nents of the Antarctic food chain?”

Antarctic fish are inter­me­diate in the Antarctic food chain and are eaten by seals, birds, and even killer whales. Mam­mals and birds, which are near the apex of the food chain, could suffer if this part of their diet were to decline.