Antarctic life hung by a thread during ice ages

Feb 15, 2008

Frozen in time... frozen in place... frozen solid... All of these phrases have been used to describe Antarctica, and yet they all belie the truth about this southerly point on the globe. Although the area is covered in ice and bears witness to some of the most extreme cold on the planet, this ecosystem is dynamic, not static, and change here has always been dramatic and intense.

A report published in the March issue of Ecology argues that the extreme cold and environmental conditions of past Ice Ages have been even more severe than seen today and changed life at the Antarctic, forcing the migration of many animals such as penguins, whales and seals. Understanding the changes of the past may help scientists to determine how the anticipated temperature increases of the future will work to further transform this continent.

Extreme cold and lasting darkness have always worked to limit the productivity of the microscopic algae in Antarctica. The availability of such algae drives the entire region’s food web, from one-celled organisms to top predators such as whales and seals, making life in this region challenging for all kinds of animals.

But during the Ice Ages, animals in Antarctica faced conditions even more life-threatening. Massively thick and permanent ice covered most of the land, and sea-ice coverage around the continent was permanent. The Antarctic continental shelf was glaciated and most seafloor animals dodged extinction by emigrating into deeper waters.

Sven Thatje from the University of Southampton’s School of Ocean and Earth Science (UK) has been studying geological records of the area for such insights. He and his team from the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge and the German Alfred Wegener Institute have found that penguins, whales and seals were very dependant upon areas of open water known as polynyas. The polynyas, the team contends, must have existed far south of the present winter sea-ice boundaries, and far north of the Antarctic shelf.

Polynyas have been important both in the past and today because they cause upswells of warmer water, and thereby help establish local food webs for many animals.

Thatje’s team analyzed geologic and genetic records and found that during glacial periods the permanent sea-ice belt advanced much further to the North than it is now. In parts of the Southern Ocean, the summer sea-ice boundary was located where the winter sea-ice limit is today, and ice coverage was complete and a magnitude thicker than seen today. These boundaries would have forced a complete shut down of food supplies for most life, both from the sea and land.

Only species that are champions of cold weather adaptation in the present day, such as Emperor Penguins and Snow Petrels, were likely able to survive in locally restricted areas of biological productivity. Those animals, it seems likely, may have stayed in Antarctica during the Ice Ages.

But the polynyas were too isolated to support larger top predators, such as seals and whales, which had to move north to escape starvation. Many other penguin species lost access to traditional feeding grounds and ice-free breeding areas on land, which are crucial for their survival. Some of those animals may have thus been forced to emigrate as far north as the Patagonian shelf off the coast of what is now Argentina.

“Science is only now beginning to ponder what happened here during the Ice Ages,” says Thatje. “This research is leading to a radical reconsideration of those time periods. Antarctic species are champions in adaptations to extreme cold and the harshest environmental conditions. Understanding how the stunning Antarctic fauna has evolved and coped with glacial-interglacial periods will help us to assess their sensitivity to current climate warming.”

Thatje also notes that the animals of Antarctica are extremely vulnerable to warming temperatures. Their ability to survive in extreme cold is unique and has taken tens of millions of years to evolve.

Shifts in the distribution of animals over glacial cycles have likely been a very common phenomenon in region, he says. But given the fact that sub-Antarctic organisms are invading the area as temperatures rise, Thatje says it is time to assess how and if the Antarctic ecosystems will be able to cope with the new invaders.

Source: Ecological Society of America

Explore further: Underwater elephants

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Tracking the breakup of Arctic summer sea ice

Jul 16, 2014

As sea ice begins to melt back toward its late September minimum, it is being watched as never before. Scientists have put sensors on and under ice in the Beaufort Sea for an unprecedented campaign to monitor ...

What geology has to say about global warming

Jul 14, 2014

Last month I gave a public lecture entitled, "When Maine was California," to an audience in a small town in Maine. It drew parallels between California, today, and Maine, 400 million years ago, when similar ...

Study finds Emperor penguin in peril

Jun 29, 2014

An international team of scientists studying Emperor penguin populations across Antarctica finds the iconic animals in danger of dramatic declines by the end of the century due to climate change. Their study, ...

Finding elusive emperor penguins

Jun 25, 2014

Field surveys and satellites complement each other when studying remote penguin populations, according to research published June 25 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by André Ancel from the CNRS at Str ...

Recommended for you

Underwater elephants

4 hours ago

In the high-tech world of science, researchers sometimes need to get back to basics. UC Santa Barbara's Douglas McCauley did just that to study the impacts of the bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) on cor ...

Malaysia air quality 'unhealthy' as haze obscures skies

11 hours ago

Air quality around Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur and on Borneo island was "unhealthy" on Tuesday, with one town reaching "very unhealthy" levels as haze—mostly from forest fires in Indonesia—obscured skies.

User comments : 0