Antarctic expedition brings back 30 new species

By Signe Cane 19 December 2013
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Unexpected deep-sea creatures discovered in the Antarctic.

A SCIENTIFIC EXPEDITION to Antarctica has discovered more than 30 new marine species – and the community discovered is unique.

In 2008, an international scientific team led by the British Antarctic Survey went on an expedition to the largely unexplored Amundsen Sea. Now, following a global effort to identify the haul, the findings have been revealed to the public.

A key member of the team, geneticist Dr Jan Strugnell at La Trobe University in Melbourne, told Australian Geographic that this was the first significant survey of sea life in the region.

Significantly different sea life

“Our findings are finally placing this area of Antarctica in the context of other areas such as Ross Sea,” she says. “Of course, for a region that has never been sampled, you’d think you’d find some new species. But I think the ones we found here are significantly different.”

The Amundsen Sea is one of the most remote regions of Antarctic waters, with deep troughs and basins formed during several ice ages. Mostly ice-covered for long periods of time, it is difficult to explore. However in the last decades the ice extent has been declining.

The scientists navigated there during summer and were able to reach the very edge of the continental ice shelf – the floating boundary of the coastline. Here they deployed several trawls, some as deep as 3166m and brought to the surface a total of 5469 specimens.

About 10 per cent of all the animals they found were new to science.  And to the researchers’ surprise, the sea shelf here was not dominated by large sponges that are not mobile but instead by starfish, urchins, brittlestars and sea cucumbers that are much more able to move around.

“We can use the creatures we found to understand more about evolutionary patterns in this area,” Jan says. “It is important to understand how climatic changes have influenced evolution of species in the past. The deep regions of this sea may have acted as a refuge area for creatures during ice-age glacial periods when it was colder.”

Spectacular survey results

Dr Karen Miller, a marine biologist at the University of Tasmania who was not involved in the survey, says the results are spectacular. “It shows how little we know about deep-sea fauna in Antarctica.”

Marine biologist Professor Peter Steinberg from University of New South Wales says he is surprised about the distributions of species here, because they are so different from other geographically similar areas.

It was generally thought that communities across Antarctic waters were similar because of the homogenising effect of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. But the new findings challenge that assumption.

“So much of what we know about the marine life in Antarctica is based on data from Weddell Sea and the regions of East Antarctica,” adds Karen.

Experts note that the Amundsen Sea is quickly changing and the ice shelf here is thinning more rapidly than elsewhere. “Some of the places most affected by climate change are going to be around Antarctica, so we have to know more about the biodiversity there to see how it may be affected,” says Peter.

The research was reported in the journal Continental Shelf Research.