Antarctic Ecology


Kids and even older students often think that animals = vertebrates or even animals = mammals. That is of course incorrect. Any eukaryotic organism that eats preformed nutrients and does not engage in photosynthesis and isn’t a fungus or slime mould is an animal.  Sorry to be pedantic but that changes the questions, e.g. how many animals are there. Have a look at this poster which has information specifically about the Ross Sea region:

1) What animals do you see when you go there?

We see penguins, flying seabirds, seals and whales. But there are many more animals we don’t see in the ocean, such as fish, krill, and many other marine species.

2) How many species of animals are in Antarctica?

A lot (see note above).  In terms of vertebrates, there are about six species of penguins, five species of seals, seven species of whale, and over 20 species of flying seabirds. There are ca. 300 species of fish we know of in the Southern Ocean, many of which live only there and nowhere else. There is also a vast number of invertebrates, the most famous of which is krill.

3) What changes have you seen in Antarctica over the past 20 or so years?

We have seen little effect of climate change in the Ross Sea sector yet. However, more and more people are coming to Antarctica and more stations are being built. There is a greater emphasis on environmental protection. I think more can be done with remote sensing to reduce the number of scientists traveling to the ice each year. There is also conceRn about a large increase in the number of tourists to Antarctica due to the potential for environmental degradation, pollution, accidents etc.

4) How is global warming affecting the wildlife that live there?

As above, we are not seeing a lot of change yet. However, on the Antarctic Peninsula, the sea ice is changing and the distribution of penguin species is shifting, with everyone moving further south. This means that the most southerly species may run out of room. There has also been an increase in rain fall in the Antarctic Peninsula region. This is very bad for penguin chicks, as their downy insulation does not keep them warm when they get wet (the adults have outer guard feathers conditioned with special lipids to keep the water out of their plumage).  We can also look to the Arctic, which is changing faster, to get an idea of how animals in the Antarctic may be affected by climate change in the future. For example, in the Arctic species that need pack ice are severely affected such as polar bears and harp seals. This suggests that with rising temperatures and loss of sea ice, Antarctic animals that need sea ice may be affected, such as emperor penguins, crab-eater seals and leopard seals.  Warming of the ocean and loss of ice can also affect the animals’ food supply for example by reducing the amount of krill (through loss of sea ice) or by changing the distribution of fish to greater depth.

Regina Eisert is a comparative mammalian physiologist. Before joining Gateway Antarctica at the University of Canterbury in 2013, she was working at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. She has participated in six Antarctic expeditions and studies Antarctic top predators including Weddell seals and killer whales.


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