Thursday, December 4, 2008

Scientists uncover 1,224 different species in first ever inventory of life at the poles

The world's first inventory of sea and land animals around a group of freezing Antarctic islands has uncovered some 1,224 species, it was revealed today.

A team from the British Antarctic Survey and University of Hamburg spent seven weeks on board the research vessel RRS James Clark Ross studying life on the South Orkney Islands, near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

The survey - which saw experts combing the land, using scuba divers in the shallows and employing a special sledge with nets up to 1,500 metres long in waters around the island - revealed an area with more life than the Galapagos Islands, an area renowned for its unique species.

Scientists recorded marine and land species, including sea urchins, free-swimming worms, crustaceans, molluscs, mites and birds.

They also painstakingly examined over 100 years of historical records on the flora and fauna in this region.

Five species were also found to be completely new to science, including marine 'woodlice' and moss-like animals.

The team of 23 scientists believes the study provides an important benchmark to monitor how animals will respond to climate change in the future.

The oceans around Antarctica have increased by an average of 1°C in the last 50 years. The atmospheric temperature on the Antarctica Peninsula has increased by 2.5°C over the same time and is one of the most rapidly warming areas on the planet.

Lead author Dr David Barnes of the Cambridge-based British Antarctic Survey (BAS), has revealed his findings in the Journal of Biogeography to be published this week.

He said: 'If we are to understand how these animals will respond to future change, a starting point like this is really important.

'We were amazed to find so many animals on these islands.

'Of the 1224 species recorded there were 50 types or genus of animals - many more than we’ve found in one place before.

'By having a benchmark of the animals that live here we can now monitor how they will respond to climate change, as they are in one of the most rapidly warming areas on the planet.

'This is the first time anybody has done an inventory like this in the polar regions.'

In an interview with the BBC, he added: '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.

'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.'

Studies of animal life around Antarctica often uncover new species as little is known about the area.

Dr Barnes told the BBC: 'This is some of the best-studied land anywhere in the Antarctic, because there have been biologists on it continuously for decades.

'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.'

Stefanie Kaiser, from the University of Hamburg, said: 'We never knew there were so many different species on and around these islands.

'This abundance of life was completely unexpected for a location in the polar regions, previously perceived to be poor in biodiversity.'

The study forms part of the Census of Marine Life (COML), a ten-year programme started in 2000 to assess the abundance and diversity of marine life in the world's oceans.
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