A new study on biodiversity in Antarctica, published in the journal Nature, discovered that the region is far richer in animals and plants than previously imagined. Across the continent and the Southern Ocean, extraordinary creatures like ‘sea spiders’ struggle for survival and more needs to be done to protect and conserve these species.
“This is one of the planet’s last, relatively intact large marine ecosystems,” Professor Andrew Clarke said, speaking about the Ross Sea.
Lead author Professor Steven Chown said they found more than 8,000 species in the region’s marine environment. “So, that’s considerably more than anybody thought,” he said.
“It’s right up there with non-reef tropical habitats and temperate habitats, so it’s an enormously rich ocean.
“The really amazing diversity lies in the microbial world and there, for example in freshwater systems in Antarctica, it actually has the highest diversity of viruses freely living anywhere ever studied.”
A team of scientists led by Monash University worked with the British Antarctic Survey, University of Waikato and Australian National University.
They found unusual species such as ‘sea spiders and isopods’ — the marine equivalents of slaters or wood lice.
However, during the study, the team found the areas of special protection in national parks on land and marine protected areas at sea were too small compared to global targets such as the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Strategic Plan 2011-20.
Professor Andrew Clarke from the British Antarctic Survey said one of the particular areas of concern was the Ross Sea, which needed comprehensive protection.
“It is unusual in this respect and thus provides a suite of globally significant conservation benefits and scientific insights.”
Professor Chown agreed, saying “quite surprisingly the proportion of protected area covered is pretty low for Antarctica”.
“For its terrestrial ice-free areas it’s only 1.5 per cent … and there’s a global target set by the convention on biological diversity that by 2020 we should conserve 17 per cent of terrestrial areas.
“So, that gives you some kind of idea how far away Antarctica is away from that target. One might expect that Antarctica would be doing better in that respect.”