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More biodiversity in Antarctica than the Galapagos

1 December 2008

The first comprehensive inventory of land and sea creatures living around a group of Antarctic islands reveals that the region is richer in biodiversity than the Galapagos Islands.

Starfish

A common Antarctic cushion star Odontaster validus

The inventory is an important benchmark that will help scientists gauge how Antarctic land and sea animals respond to coming environmental change.

More than 1200 known marine and land species were found, including sea urchins, free-swimming worms, crustaceans and molluscs, mites and birds.

The study, published this week in the Journal of Biogeography, describes how the team from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the University of Hamburg combed the land, sea and shores of the South Orkney Islands, just off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The researchers caught creatures at depths of 1500 metres.

The South Orkneys are much richer in biodiversity than we originally thought.
Dr David Barnes, British Antarctic Survey

Animals were checked against a century of literature of Antarctic species and modern databases. Of the 1224 species counted, 1026 are marine animals and 198 live on land. Scientists were surprised to find that the seabed is home to around 83 per cent of the marine species in this study.

'This is the first time an inventory of species in this region has been done and the results are a real surprise,' says Dr David Barnes from BAS who led the study.

Richer than the tropics

'It's always been believed that biodiversity is richest in the tropics and then declines as you get closer to the poles. This belief has come about because of the lack of marine data from around the world.

'The South Orkneys are much richer in biodiversity than we originally thought.

'This inventory is our best chance of monitoring what happens to species in this region as the climate changes,' Barnes said.

The study was part of the Census of Marine Life (COML) - an international effort to assess and explain the diversity and distribution of marine life in the world's oceans.

'These islands have been studied for around 100 years and the marine environment has been surveyed continuously for 30 years, so we know these islands very well. Because of this, only five new species were discovered,' said Barnes.

The new species the team found included moss-like creatures, as well as marine woodlice.

Despite the potential for contamination with alien species, the islands were found to be nearly pristine, with only two alien species unearthed.

The Galapagos Islands are famed for the great number of species found and catalogued by Charles Darwin and which led to his theory of natural selection in his landmark work, On the Origin of Species.


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