Recent investigations have shown the continent and surrounding ocean are rich in species, which are also very highly diversified into a variety of distinct ecological regions that differ greatly from each other.
“Most people think of the continent as a vast, icy waste, and the sea as uniformly populated by whales, seals, and penguins. But that’s simply not true,” said study leader professor Steven Chown of the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University.
“There’s much biodiversity on land, especially among the microorganisms, 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 8,000 species are known from the marine environment.”
Ceridwen Fraser, a co-author of the review from the Australian National University said: “Each area of the Antarctic also has very different groupings of species; while initially they may look the same, they are actually very different.”
The team also notes 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,” said Chown.
Professor Craig Cary, co-author from the University of Waikato in New Zealand, added: “Antarctica and the Southern Ocean have much more biodiversity, structured in more interesting ways than ever previously thought. Subglacial microorganismal life provides an excellent example of a surprising recent discovery.”
Chown said the team also made a brief assessment of the conservation status of biodiversity in the region.
“We found that in some cases conservation measures are excellent, such as in the case of the prevention of invasive alien species,” said Chown.
For others, 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,” said c-oauthor professor Andrew Clarke of the British Antarctic Survey.
The review, published in Nature, is part of a larger, global effort to further understand the biodiversity of the Antarctic region, its conservation needs, and the science that will be needed to progress understanding in the area.