December 1, 2008

New Inventory Of Species Taken In Antarctica

British and German Scientist have put together the first comprehensive inventory of sea and land animals living in a polar region.

Teams from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and Hamburg University found that Antarctica's South Orkney Islands had a bigger abundance of life than expected.

Over 1,200 species were found, including five new to science.

The findings were published in the Journal of Biogeography, and are expected to help monitor how the animals respond to future changes.

"This is the first time this has been done, not just anywhere in Antarctica, but anywhere in either polar region," said David Barnes, from BAS.

Scientific literature was studied by researchers that dated back more than 100 years, as well as more recent surveys of the land, sea and shores of the archipelago.

There were 1,224 species found in total, 1,026 of which were found in the Antarctic waters, including sea urchins, worms, crustaceans and mollusks.

"There is a widely held belief that life is very rich in the tropics and decreases through temperate areas, through to polar regions, which are thought to be barren," said Dr Barnes.

He said, "That is partly because we see life from the land point of view, and when we see the Arctic and Antarctic, we just see ice.  But below the surface of the sea, it is an incredibly rich environment, and diving there is a bit like diving on a coral reef."

He added, "If we look at other archipelagos across the globe that are also isolated, we can see that the South Orkney Islands are actually richer than the Galapagos in terms of the number of species we find in the sea."

Also discovered by the team was five species that were new to science, including moss-like animals and marine "woodlice".

This is considered a low number compared to other surveys in the polar regions.  However, finding so few new species was an indication that the team had picked the right spot to survey, according to Dr. Barnes.

"This is some of the best-studied land anywhere in the Antarctic, because there have been biologists on it continuously for decades," he said.

"Ironically, when you have a place where you don't find lots of new species, it tells you that you know the life that occurs there fairly well," he added.

Scientists will now use the inventory to see how this area responds to future environmental changes.

"If we are trying to measure change over time, and try and ascribe different amounts of change to things like response to regional warming or response to ocean acidification, you need to have this kind of baseline and you need to have confidence in that baseline," said Dr. Barnes.

The research team consisted of 23 scientists of five research institutes.  They spent seven weeks on the BAS Royal Research Ship James Clark Ross in 2006.


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