Scientists have found a way of exploring the Antarctic seafloor without getting wet

Sea squirts. Image: Jonny Stark / Australian Antarctic Division

Australian and international scientists are using satellites and an ocean model to explain and predict biodiversity on the Antarctic seafloor.

The researchers combined satellite images of phytoplankton colour on the sea surface with a suite of connected models to accurately predict the extent of seafloor life without the need for extensive physical sampling.

The breakthrough, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, will support better conservation and management of biodiversity in the Antarctic.

“For the first time, we are able to predict how much food is available to organisms on the Antarctic sea floor, and therefore how much life is supported across the region,” says lead author Jan Jansen, a PhD student at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania.

Here’s the Antarctic seafloor:

Jansen says scientists have long known there is a relationship between organic matter on the surface and life on the sea floor.

“But until now there hasn’t been a reliable model that not only explained the link but also enabled predictions of biodiversity,” she says.

“Our food availability model brings satellite data and analysis of the rate at which organic matter sinks together with data about fluctuating ocean currents on and above the seafloor.

“The model’s predictions about how much food there will be in a particular area have been verified by physical sampling of seafloor sediments.”

Image: Australian Antarctic Division

Craig Johnson, a co-author and Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies professor, says the new approach can be used to generate maps of biodiversity across the continental shelf right around the Antarctic continent, including areas where information is limited or difficult to collect.

“This information would be very valuable and is an exciting prospect,” says Johnson.

“With further research, this system of models has the potential to provide valuable insights into seafloor biodiversity across other parts of the world’s oceans.”

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