Life in Antarctica is richer and more diverse than previously thought

RV Tangaroa moving through the ice. Image: Glen Walker/NIWA/Australian Antarctic Division

The range and variety of plant and animal life in Antarctica is much greater than previously thought, according to a review by Australian, New Zealand and British scientists.

And the team of scientists, writing in the journal Nature, say the limited conservation effort in Antarctica so far is concerning.

The scientists, led by Monash University with colleagues from the British Antarctic Survey, University of Waikato and Australian National University, looked at how recent investigations have shown the continent and surrounding ocean is rich in species.

Professor Steven Chown, from the School of Biological Sciences at Monash, says the team focussed on demonstrating the diversity of various areas of the Antarctic continent and Southern Ocean.

“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,” he says.

There’s much biodiversity on land, especially among the micro-organisms, such as bacteria, and the seafloor is rich in larger species, such as sea spiders and isopods (the marine equivalents of wood lice).

More than 8,000 species are known from the marine environment.

Professor Craig Cary, a co-author from the University of Waikato, says Antarctica and the Southern Ocean have much more biodiversity, structured in more interesting ways than previously thought.

“The discovery of micro organismal life living under glaciers is an example of a surprising recent discovery. How this unique biodiversity will respond to the globally changing climate is unknown,” he says.

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