Monday, June 29, 2015

Antarctic biodiversity

Most people think of the Antarctic continent as a vast, icy waste, and the sea as uniformly populated by whales, seals and penguins. But that's simply not true. There's much biodiversity on land, especially among the micro-organisms, such as bacteria, and the seafloor is very rich in larger unusual species, such as sea spiders and isopods (the marine equivalents of slaters or wood lice). More than 8000 species are known from the marine environment.

An international team of researchers looked at how recent investigations have revealed the continent and surrounding ocean is rich in species. Studies were highly diversified into a variety of distinct ecological regions that differ greatly from each other. The team explicitly focused on demonstrating the diversity of various areas of the Antarctic continent and Southern Ocean, and noted several unusual ways in which patterns of biodiversity are produced in the region. Geothermal, heated areas, such as volcanoes, have played an important role as refuges from icy, glacial conditions on land. At sea, wind has an especially significant effect on diversity. Windier areas have more seabird species. Increasing wind speeds, associated with the ozone hole, have, quite unusually, improved conditions for wandering albatrosses, reducing their travel time and enabling them to become much heavier as adults.

Antarctica and the Southern Ocean have much more biodiversity, structured in more interesting ways than ever previously thought. Sub-glacial micro-organismal life provides an excellent example of a surprising recent discovery

The team also made a brief assessment of the conservation status of biodiversity in the region. The colleagues found that in some cases conservation measures are excellent, e.g. when it comes to the prevention of invasive alien species. For other issues, work by the Antarctic Treaty Parties is still required. For example, the area covered by special protection on land (the equivalent of national parks), and by marine protected areas at sea, is still too small, when measured by global targets such as those of the Strategic Plan on Biodiversity 2011-2020. The team drew particular attention to the need for comprehensive protection of the Ross Sea.

This is one of the planet's last, relatively intact, large marine ecosystems. It is unusual in this respect, and thus provides a suite of globally significant conservation benefits and scientific insights. Ultimately, the region will require a dedicated plan for biodiversity conservation, similar to those being developed for most other regions of the planet. We think there's plenty of appetite for developing it.

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