Polish Antarctic love letter aids plant study

ROTHERA BASE, Antarctica (Reuters) - A lovesick Polish scientist on a remote island has aided understanding of Antarctica’s two flowering plants with a tribute to his beloved written in penguin dung fertilizer, Chilean researchers said.

Chilean biologist Luisa Bascunan walks past an "M" laid out in a love tribute to a Polish woman called "Magda" on a remote Antarctic island in an undated handout. The growth of Antarctic plants differed on the "M" -- made from penguin dung -- from the surrounding area in a clue to how they grow in the cold. REUTERS/Mikolaj Golachowski/Courtesy of Luisa Bascunan/Handout

The two plants were found flourishing side by side on a two-meter (six ft) long “M” -- the first letter of the woman’s name “Magda” -- laid out by the researcher several years ago on King George Island at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

In surrounding areas, the Antarctic pearlwort and the Antarctic hair grass did not grow together -- a sign that the penguin dung acted as a fertilizer to create the rare floral love message.

“Many years ago a man wrote an ‘M’ for ‘Magda’ with penguin dung on the ground,” the Chilean Antarctic Institute said in a report supplied to Reuters at Britain’s Rothera research station on the Antarctic Peninsula.

“Today the Antarctic hair grass and the Antarctic pearlwort grow there together, perpetuating this unusual love story,” it said of the findings by botanist Luisa Bascunan of Chile’s University of Concepcion.

Bascunan said in an e-mail that she visited King George Island last year and was struck by the “M” and its plants. The head of the Polish research station on the island told her the history of the “M.”

Scientists are studying the plants to try to understand how they survive bone-chilling temperatures, winter darkness and extremely high ultra-violet radiation in summer. Global warming may make conditions easier for the plants.

Bascunan said the ground-hugging pearlwort might have benefited on the “M” from shade provided by the taller hair grass, which is better at growing on apparently barren ground.

“The Antarctic pearlwort is a more delicate plant that needs more favorable conditions to survive. By contrast the hair grass is more aggressive, able to colonize really unfavorable spots,” she said.

“For many of us who study the pearlwort it is surprising that it can be found in Antarctica when it is not so resistant to unfavorable conditions,” she said. “That is still a great mystery.”

The pearlwort is also found in the Andes mountains.

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Editing by Angus MacSwan