Antarctic Cows

The issue of non-native species in the Antarctic has been on the agenda at the Antarctic Treaty meeting in Sofia this past week. Usually the sorts of critters in the sights of the treaty parties are things like the king crab, rats, seeds and microbes. Occasionally larger mammals make an appearance – such as the reindeer in South Georgia. Cows, however, are rarely mentioned in the same sentence as “Antarctica.” I’m currently in Wisconsin, dairy capital of the USA, and I am aiming to change that, thanks to the help of the local archives, a well-known Antarctic hero from the USA, and this state’s enthusiasm for all things that go “moo”.

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Fresh milk is something that modern day expeditioners and Antarctic programme personnel can only dream of – it sits alongside oranges and bananas at the top of the wish list for those who overwinter. One of the long-standing jokes at the Trans-Antarctic Expedition Hut at New Zealand’s Scott Base is the 1950s style glass milk bottle that still sits in the letterbox, just like back home. Powdered milk was (and is) the order of the day – but for the USA’s Admiral Byrd, an ample supply of Horlick’s was simply not enough. Instead of the product, in 1928 he carried the source.

Any farmer round these parts will tell you that a cow is not just a cow. Byrd was discerning, and chose three award-winning Guernsey cows to take south because of the quality of their milk. A fourth, christened “Iceberg”, was born en route to Antarctica. As he was a bobby calf, Iceberg was not a useful addition to the expedition in terms of milk production. He was, however, very handy when it came to publicity. Cue the column inches back home, detailing the most southerly birth of a cattle beast, the cows’ first steps onto the icy continent, and the eating habits of the miniature dairy herd.

Not only were the adventures of the cows chronicled in the US press during the expedition, they were also hailed as heroes upon their return. Iceberg was invited to official luncheons, displayed at farm shows, and featured on pin badges. At the annual meeting of the American Guernsey Cattle Club, he was served “hay cocktails – heaps of hay with cracked ice” atop his very own table, laid with white linen. His female companions even featured in advertisements for surge milking apparatuses back home in the USA, where they were touted as having travelled the farthest distance since the famous cow jumped over the moon. There’s something to ponder next time you nip down to the shops for a tub of ice cream.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

 

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All Work No Play?

With snow on the mountains, what better toy to take out for a play than something ice-themed that doubles as a team-building exercise? I’m not talking about tobogganing or anything that could place limbs in any danger; At lunchtime last week my institute just got a whole lot cooler, thanks to a lego party in the lunchroom. That’s right, you read that correctly. My colleague’s lego icebreaker kit finally arrived in the post, so it was time to assemble the awesomeness of the ship, the dog sled team, the helicopter, the Arctic station, the polar bear, and the mass of satellite dishes and radio towers. Sure, my interest is in Antarctic studies, but we don’t discriminate against the other pole. Plus, if you look closely at the illustrations on the ‘Arctic’ logo, it looks suspiciously like the Antarctic Peninsula…

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This was actually my first time following instructions – when it comes to lego, anyway. Sure, we had the blocks as kids, but I was a free-range child, creating vet hospitals for the Sylvanian families or mixing it up with meccano cogs (which, you have to admit, are pretty neat). This time round there was to be no mixing, and no wanton improvisation – Arctic lego building is, as I was soon to discover, serious business. I do have to admit I was rather worried when, after carefully working through page by page, my helicopter still looked somehow wrong. It was quickly pointed out that there was actually one more page to go – the (moderately important) rotor blades were missing…
 
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What I lack in logical instruction-following skills I more than make up for in toy-screenplay-scenario-creation. Upon seeing a lego man on a skidoo with a blade in one hand and a camera in the other, I automatically thought of creating a miniature remake of ‘The Thing‘, complete with tomato sauce blood and gore. I mean, what else would you possibly do with such a combination of props and a maniacal lego-style grin on your face? (No? Like I said, free-range imagination…)
 
Anyway, we got there in the end, with sticker-masters expertly lining up the decals, advisory committees being formed to assemble the winches, and a handy gopro on hand to record the action for later use on social media (building science lego and posting it on the internet counts as science outreach, right?) Sure, the packet said ‘6-12′, but we know it wasn’t referring to an age range. 6-12 participants is obviously the optimum number of people to invite to a lunchtime Arctic lego building session! And now that the models are assembled, all that remains is to wait for the polar weather to set in proper so we can head outside for some icy action.