May 17, 2007

Antarctic Mission Finds 700 New Species

By Michael McCarthy

An astonishing array of wildlife has been unexpectedly found in one of the world's most hostile environments - the pitch-black, freezing extreme depths of the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica.

More than 700 creatures new to science, ranging from crustaceans and molluscs to carnivorous sponges and free-swimming worms, have been discovered on a series of expeditions exploring the deep waters of the Weddell Sea.

No fewer than 585 new species of crustacean were brought to light during three sampling expeditions set up as part of the Andeep (Antarctic benthic deep-sea biodiversity) project, carried out by an international team including British scientists who were based on the German polar research ship Polarstern between 2002 and 2005.

The results, reported this week in the journal Nature, throw new light on a largely unstudied place and challenge previous preconceptions that life in the Southern Ocean's extreme depths was unlikely to be particularly plentiful.

"What was once thought to be a featureless abyss is in fact a dynamic, variable and biologically rich environment," said Dr Katrin Linse, a marine biologist from the British Antarctic Survey, who took part in the expeditions. "Finding this extraordinary treasure- trove of marine life is our first step to understanding the complex relationships between the deep ocean and distribution of marine life."

The expedition leader, Professor Angelika Brandt from the Zoological Institute and Zoological Museum at the University Hamburg, said that the Antarctic deep sea was potentially the cradle of life of the global marine species. "Our research results challenge suggestions that the deep sea diversity in the Southern Ocean is poor," she said. "We now have a better understanding in the evolution of the marine species and how they can adapt to changes in climate and environments."

During their three voyages, Professor Brandt and her colleagues investigated the seafloor landscape, its continental slope rise and changing water depths to build a picture of life in this little- known region of the ocean. They collected biological specimens and environmental data from phenomenal depths - in different regions between 774 and 6,348 metres under the surface of the Weddell Sea and adjacent areas.

The Weddell Sea is an important source of deep water for the rest of the ocean and provides a possible route for species to enter that deep water. In line with this, the team found deep-sea faunas that were also found in adjacent shelf communities and in other oceans.

They spotted 674 species of isopod - a diverse order of crustaceans - of which more than 80 per cent were new to science. Of more than 70 species of sponges recovered, 17 were new to science, and the researchers found 81 new species of polychaete worms and more than 70 new species of ostracods (small crustaceans). First insights into the biodiversity and biogeography of the Southern Ocean deep sea.


The deep sea is classified as depths below 1000 metres. The specimens were collected at depths of 774 "“ 6348 metres from the German research vessel Polarstern on three cruises between 2002 "“ 2005.

Scientists know about the biodiversity in shallow marine communities, but knowledge of the deep sea communities is poor.

The ANDEEP (Antarctic benthic deep sea biodiversity) project is conducting the first comprehensive study of marine animals in the Antarctic deep sea. It involves scientists from 17 organisations world-wide. The German Science Foundation (DFG) and the Ministry for Science and Education (BMBF) are the major funders of ANDEEP.

UK Scientists from British Antarctic Survey (BAS), National Oceanographic Centre, Southampton (NOCS) and Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) were involved in the analyses of the species and marine sediments, which are a basis for structuring marine ecosystems.

British Antarctic Survey is a world leader in research into global issues in an Antarctic context. It is the UK's national operator and is a component of the Natural Environment Research Council. It has an annual budget of around £40 million, runs nine research programmes and operates five research stations, two Royal Research Ships and five aircraft in and around Antarctica. More information about the work of the Survey can be found at:

The Alfred-Wegener-Institute for Polar- and Marine Sciences in Bremerhaven runs the logistics of the R/V Polarstern, Germany's polar research and supply vessel. R/V Polarstern has completed a total of more than thirty expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic. She was specially designed for working in the polar seas and is currently one of the most sophisticated polar research vessel in the world.

The National Oceanography Centre, Southampton is the UK's focus for oceanography and represents an unparalleled investment in marine and earth sciences and technology in the UK. The centre opened in 1995 in a purpose-built, £50 million waterfront campus on the city's Empress Dock. A collaboration between the Natural Environment Research Council and the University of Southampton, the centre houses around 500 staff and 700 undergraduate and postgraduate students.

The Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) is one of the world's oldest oceanographic institutions. Based at the Dunstaffnage Marine Laboratory, Scotland it is committed to promoting, delivering and supporting high-quality, independent research and education in marine science. Further information can be found at www.sams.ac.uk


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British Antarctica Survey