Move over, Galapagos. A group of Antarctic islands has more biodiversity than the species-rich archipelago that helped shape Darwin ‘s theory of natural selection. British and German scientists made the surprising finding when they conducted the first comprehensive inventory of animal life on and around the South Orkney Islands, located near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Using scuba divers and trawl nets to catch critters as deep as 4,900 feet, the team found more than 1,200 land and marine species, including birds, sea urchins, crustaceans, and mites. One-third of the species weren’t previously known to live there, and they discovered five new species.
New Scientist reports (check out NS’s video, above):
These findings go against the traditional view that biodiversity declines away from the tropics and towards the polar regions.
The study could also provide an important benchmark to monitor how the creatures that inhabit the frigid region respond to rising temperatures.
"As the sea gets warmer, then temperate species will move into Antarctica and Antarctic species will shift further south or into colder regions," says [says lead researcher David Barnes of the British Antarctic Survey]. "The South Orkney Islands is the one place where we have a real possibility of detecting new things arriving and things leaving."
Jon Copley, a marine ecologist at the University of Southampton, UK, agrees. "The starting point for any conservation strategy has got to be knowing what you've got to conserve," he says, "and this study provides a very valuable baseline in that regard."
While biodiversity in this region may not decrease as a result of the warming, says Barnes, it is likely that the changes in species composition will result in an overall loss in the Earth's biodiversity.
The region’s rich biodiversity may come as a surprise to most of us, with reason: You wouldn’t be able to spot most of the life on a visit there—of the 1,224 species found, 1026 are marine and 821 of these live on the seabed.
Benthic critters might not draw as many tourists as the megafauna of the Galapagos (though tourism to Antarctica has become increasingly popular), but at least one group of scientists has been inspired by the wee animals. The band Willis, made up of Antarctic researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, is working on a plankton-inspired song with the line: “I am a little green machine/Tiniest plant you’ve ever seen.” If birds are more your thing, you might enjoy their ditty, Penguin Fight Song (for a listen, and footage of the animals, click ‘play’ below).