New atlas of Southern Ocean marine life, from microbes to whales

Monday, 25 August 2014

Adélie Penguin, Pygoscelis adeliae. Image © Alain De Broyer.
Adélie Penguin, Pygoscelis adeliae. Image © Alain De Broyer.

A new atlas, providing one of the most thorough audit ever of marine life in the Southern Ocean, was launched in New Zealand today. Leading marine biologists and oceanographers from all over the world, including NUI Galway’s Dr Louise Allcock, spent the last four years compiling information on more than 9,000 species.

The species, which range from microbes to whales, include seaweeds, crustaceans, molluscs, corals, anemones, worms, moss animals, urchins, starfish, sea squirts, plankton, jellyfish, fish, seals, and birds. In 66 chapters, the scientists examine the evolution, physical environment, genetics and possible impact of climate change on marine organisms in the region.

Dr Louise Allcock, a Lecturer in Zoology at NUI Galway, is author of two of the chapters. Her first chapter focuses on octopuses, a subject on which she is one of the world’s leading authorities. 

In a second chapter she explores bipolarity, the phenomenon where a species exists both in Antarctica, and the Arctic. According to Dr Allcock: “The study of bipolar species is fascinating because it tells us quite a lot about evolution and speciation. There are probably far fewer bipolar species than some people have suggested, but they are a very real transient natural phenomenon. As a species becomes widely dispersed, for a while it can be bipolar, but because of limited gene flow between the polar populations, these populations eventually diverge and each becomes a species in its own right.”

Published by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), the new Biogeographic Atlas of the Southern Ocean is an unprecedented international collaboration involving 147 scientists from 91 institutions across 22 countries. It is the first time that such an effort has been undertaken since 1969 when the American Society of Geography published its Antarctic Map Folio Series.  

Chief editor, Claude De Broyer, of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, said: “This is the first time that all the records of the unique Antarctic marine biodiversity, from the very beginnings of Antarctic exploration in the days of Captain Cook, have been compiled, analysed and mapped by the scientific community. It has resulted in a comprehensive atlas and an accessible database of useful information on the conservation of Antarctic marine life.”

The data, and expert opinions, in the Atlas will help inform conservation policy, including the debate over whether or not to establish marine protected areas in the open ocean. Sophisticated environmental models coupled with existing species distribution data provide a valuable outlook on the possible future distribution of key species as they adapt to climate change.

New advances in genetics have shed light on some of the best known species from the Antarctic sea floor. The giant isopod crustacean Glyptonotus antarcticus is one of those. The animal lives on the edge of the continent at depths of up to 600 metres. Previously considered to be a single species with a circumpolar distribution, molecular barcoding suggests it may, in reality, be a group with up to eleven species inhabiting much smaller geographic regions. 

Author, and editor, Huw Griffiths, of the British Antarctic Survey, said: “The book is unique and contains an amazing collection of information and photos. It’s been an enormous international effort and will serve as a legacy to the dedicated team of scientists who have contributed to it. The Atlas is a must-read for anyone interested in the animals living at the end of the Earth.”

The Atlas contains around 100 colour photos and 800 maps. It was launched at the SCAR 2014 Open Science Conference in Auckland, New Zealand today.

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Keywords: Press.

Author: Marketing and Communications Office, NUI Galway
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