Krill – it's a familiar word that conjures oceans, whales, and swimming crustaceans. Scientists say they are one of most abundant animals on the planet. But when pressed, few people can accurately describe krill or explain their ecological importance. Antarctic krill have used their extraordinary adaptive skills to survive and thrive for millions of years in a dark, icy world far from human interference. But with climate change melting ice caps at the top and bottom of the world, and increased human activity and pollution, their evolutionary flexibility to withstand these new pressures may not be enough.
Eminent krill scientist Stephen Nicol wants us to know more about this enigmatic creature of the sea. He argues that it's critical to understand krill's complex biology in order to protect them as the krill fishing industry expands. This account of Antarctic krill – one of the largest of eighty-five krill species – takes us to the Southern Ocean to learn first-hand the difficulties and rewards of studying krill in its habitat. Nicol lays to rest the notion that krill are simply microscopic, shrimplike whale food but are in fact midway up the food chain, consumers of phytoplankton and themselves consumed by whales, seals, and penguins. From his early education about the sex lives of krill in the Bay of Fundy to a krill tattoo gone awry, Nicol uses humor and personal stories to bring the biology and beauty of krill alive. In the final chapters, he examines the possibility of an increasingly ice-free Southern Ocean and what that means for the fate of krill – and us.
Ocean enthusiasts will come away with a newfound appreciation for the complex ecology of a species we have much to learn from, and many reasons to protect.
"The book is an ode to Antarctic krill [...] [Its] conversational [...] style makes you feel as if you're part of an engaging dinnertime conversation."
– Science News
"Marine scientist Nicol's passion for krill [...] certainly comes across [...] those seeking a very accessible entry point to marine biology and conservation will find it here."
– Publishers Weekly
"The Curious Life of Krill takes the reader deep into the Southern Ocean [...] Nicol writes passionately about [krill] biology, exploitation, and management."
"The Curious Life of Krill offers a newfound appreciation for the complex ecology of a species we have much to learn from, and many reasons to protect. An exceptional and impressively informative study [...] unreservedly recommended."
– Midwest Book Review
"Few scientists delight in the subjects of their study with the renaissance manner of Nicol. In The Curious Life of Krill, Nicol combines science, philosophy, art, and conservation to tell a deeply personal story of his life's work: Antarctic krill. He does so with insight, humor, and engaging, accessible prose that encourages us to think bravely and broadly about how to look after our world. For this we should be deeply grateful."
– Nick Gales, Director, Australian Antarctic Division
"An essential reflection on an essential set of creatures. With wit and hard-earned wisdom, Stephen Nicol reveals how krill drive the ecosystems at the bottom of the world and how, in an era of profound climate change, they require our most careful attention."
– Paul Greenberg, Correspondent for Frontline's The Fish on My Plate, and author of Four Fish and American Catch
"Krill expert Stephen Nicol transports us to the world of one of the ocean's most important, least-understood creatures. A krill is indeed curious: its ability to shrink when short of food, its intricate relationship with Antarctic sea ice, and its critical role in great-whale ecosystems. Read this book and you will understand our human relationship with krill, and feel that you have swum with it through Antarctic seas."
– David Agnew, Director of Science, Marine Stewardship Council
Chapter 1 Oceans of Krill
Chapter 2 Going with the Floes
Chapter 3 Labors of Love
Chapter 4 Bringing Krill to Life
Chapter 5 Antarctic Fast Food
Chapter 6 Catching Krill
Chapter 7 Conventional Approaches
Chapter 8 Krill Futures
About the Author
Krill is one of those enigmatic invertebrate groups that feeds whole ocean ecosystems but remains itself little known. Even to a biologist such as myself (who has studied fish for crying out loud!), these critters are largely a set of question marks. I mean they are crustaceans, swim in the sea, are numerous and... oh look, a blue whale!
Krill are so much more than just delectable food items for the largest filter feeders on the planet. Stephen Nicol is one of the world’s foremost krill scientists and based on his four decades studying them, he here tells the story of the Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, the largest and best-known species.
In a pithy book of less than 200 pages, Nicol describes what we know of their biology. Since studying anything in the Antarctic is exceedingly difficult and costly, we do not know that much compared to some of the more charismatic megafauna such as whales, seals, or penguins that live at the bottom of the planet. What we have learned so far reveals a fascinating animal that might be one of the most abundant multicellular animals on the planet (though I have heard that claimed of lanternfish, see Deep-Sea Fishes) that migrates vast distances in the water column. We are not quite sure how old they get – one trick they have up one of their many sleeves is that they can grow smaller during food shortages, making size an unreliable measure of age. And during winter, young krill inhabit an upside-down winter wonderland just underneath the sea-ice, grazing on algae growing in the crevices of ice floes.
Krill hold an unusual position in the Antarctic food web, not quite at the bottom but somewhere in the middle, in what ecologists apparently call a wasp-waist ecosystem. This is to say that all energy that passes up the food chain has to pass through krill. Scientists and fishermen long thought that the wholesale slaughter and near extinction of whales might have resulted in a population explosion of krill, their main predator now having been removed. But, as also related in Serendipity, ecosystems are complex and marine ones are perhaps even harder to gauge for us landlubbers. Instead, research suggests that whales are responsible for rapidly cycling iron through ocean ecosystems. This is a limiting nutrient for plankton, especially in the Antarctic, where the ice-smothered continent leaches virtually nothing into the ocean. Krill retain a lot of iron, but whales expel most of it when they eat krill. Removing whales from the ecosystem has reduced the flux of iron, inhibiting phytoplankton growth, leaving less food for krill. Removing whales from the ecosystem has thus inhibited phytoplankton growth, leaving less food for krill. As I already mentioned in my review of Spying on Whales, whaling has in that sense impoverished the seas in ways we did not even imagine (see also Whales, Whaling, and Ocean Ecosystems).
Luckily, The Curious Life of Krill is far from a gee-whiz collection of facts as I enumerate above. Nicol’s writing on his favourite crustacean reveals much about the hardships of biological fieldwork, the technologies employed, and the care needed when interpreting and extrapolating data. Furthermore, after retiring in 2011, he enrolled in a master’s degree programme in creative writing, and I dare say that that shows. The book is very readable, and effortlessly mixes history and personal anecdotes in an amusing way that never comes across as forced. The chapters where this really shows is where he discusses fisheries management.
Next to his work as a scientist, Nicol has been involved with the international commission that manages Antarctic fisheries. Unbeknownst to many, the Antarctic has seen many failed attempts at developing an intensive krill fishery. Now, overfishing is an important topic, but it can make for turgid reading (see my review of All the Boats on the Ocean). Not so Nicol; he provides a frankly fascinating bunch of chapters on these failed attempts and on the international commission that has brought all relevant countries to the table to make sure exploitation of this fishery proceeds in a sustainable manner. Remarkably, they have so far been successful, although one has to wonder if that has more to do with the difficulties of making this an economic success story. As of yet, there is little market for krill and krill products, and the efforts required to catch sufficient krill are incredibly costly in this hostile environment.
The Curious Life of Krill is a captivating little book, and also the only book for laymen (the only other recent book I'm aware of is the scholarly edited collection Biology and Ecology of Antarctic Krill). Nicol does a superb job of distilling crustacean biology, hard-won personal experience, and interesting history into a book that never gets a chance to outstay its welcome. If you have even the slightest interest in books on oceanography, marine ecosystems, or the many interesting creatures that live here you should most certainly add this book to your reading list.