Polar Biology

, Volume 42, Issue 11, pp 1973–1984 | Cite as

Experimental cryoconite holes as mesocosms for studying community ecology

  • Pacifica SommersEmail author
  • Dorota L. Porazinska
  • John L. Darcy
  • Felix Zamora
  • Andrew G. Fountain
  • Steven K. Schmidt
Original Paper


Cryoconite holes are surface melt-holes in ice containing sediments and typically organisms. In Antarctica, they form an attractive system of isolated mesocosms in which to study microbial community dynamics in aquatic ecosystems. Although microbial assemblages within the cryoconite holes most closely resemble those from local streams, they develop their own distinctive composition. Here, we characterize the microbial taxa over time in cryoconite holes experimentally created from supraglacial sediments to demonstrate their utility as experimental mesocosms. We used high-throughput sequencing to characterize the assemblages of bacteria and microbial eukaryotes before melt-in, then after one and two months. Within one month of melt-in, the experimental holes, now lidded with ice, were visually indistinguishable from natural cryoconite holes, and within two months their thermal characteristics matched those of natural holes. The microbial composition of the experimental cryoconite holes declined in richness and changed significantly in the relative abundance of various taxa, consistent with possible turnover. In particular, a dominant cyanobacterium, Nostoc sp., further increased its dominance over the other dominant cyanobacterial phylotype, and an initially rarer Flavobacterium sp. became one of the dominant taxa. The eukaryotes continued to be dominated by algae and tardigrades, with the relative abundance of the dominant alga, Macrochloris sp., increasing notably relative to the microfauna. These changes within a single growing season in newly formed lidded cryoconite holes created from exposed supraglacial sediments are consistent with primary production and microbial turnover, and provide a promising foundation for future work using such mesocosms.


Cryoconite Antarctic Bacteria Eukaryotes Algae Cyanobacteria 



This work was conceptualized by the late Diana Nemergut, who is greatly missed. The authors would like to thank all the United States Antarctic Program staff who made these logistics feasible, UNAVCO for precision GPS support, and the BioFrontiers Sequencing Facility at the University of Colorado. Thanks also to Roberto Ambrosini, Jun Uetake, and an anonymous reviewer for comments that improved the manuscript. This work was funded by the United States National Science Foundation Polar Programs Awards 1443578 and 1443373.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Ecology and Evolutionary Biology DepartmentUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA
  2. 2.Entomology and Nemotology DepartmentUniversity of FloridaGainesvilleUSA
  3. 3.Department of BotanyUniversity of HawaiiManoaUSA
  4. 4.Geology DepartmentPortland State UniversityPortlandUSA

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