Ecosystems and Biodiversity
While significant advances have been made in recent years, Antarctica’s biological and ecological domains remain, to a large extent, unexplored. Antarctic life scientists strive to understand the evolution and diversity of life in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean to determine how these processes have produced unique Antarctic ecosystems.
One of the most important developments in life sciences in Antarctica in recent years is the increased knowledge of Antarctic marine and terrestrial biodiversity. There is a growing body of evidence that Antarctic organisms, ecosystems and biodiversity are responding to climate change. The Census of Antarctic Marine Life (CAML) was invaluable in providing a baseline for the marine environment that can be used to recognize future change. Comparable surveys are not available in the terrestrial environment and remain a high priority for Antarctic life scientists.
Life sciences research in the Antarctic has a long history of studying adaptations, ecosystem functioning and structure, and the physiology of the unique organisms that inhabit the region. Research on these topics is expected to continue to address basic questions about life in the cold and dark, in and under the ice, and at environmental extremes. Extension of observations beyond the traditional summer season and application of contemporary methods (such as molecular genomics and proteomics) to better understand biological structure and function in Antarctica are needed. While the inventory and description of extant species in Antarctica remains a high priority, there is an emerging interest in the palaeoecology of Antarctica that requires close integration with geological and glaciological studies. Antarctica today is more than 99% covered by permanent ice and snow and evidence suggests that, as recently as the last glacial maximum, ice sheets were both thicker and more extensive than they are now. It was thought that most of the currently ice-free ground would have been over-ridden by ice during previous glaciations, suggesting that Antarctic pre- glacial terrestrial life (other than microbiota) was wiped out by successive glacial events. That, in turn, suggested that most, possibly all, contemporary terrestrial life colonized the continent during subsequent periods of glacial retreat. Recent biological results challenge this paradigm and suggest greater regionalization and evolutionary isolation than previously thought. Cosmogenic isotopes now suggest that many high rock surfaces were not over-ridden, so may have been available as refugia.
The life sciences community will continue to focus its efforts on describing and understanding the unique organisms that live and function in marine and terrestrial Antarctic habitats and to use the perspective of geological time to provide a glimpse of the response of biology and ecology to environmental change over the millennia.
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