, February 16, 2009 (ENS) - Gray whales are one of at least 235 species that live in both polar seas despite a distance of more than 13,000 kilometers (8,000 miles) between them, Census of Marine Life explorers said today. After centuries of whaling, these whales had been thought to remain only in the North Pacific and along the west coast of North America.
In addition to the gray whales, Census of Marine Life scientists found that both poles share in common many birds, worms, crustaceans, and snail-like pteropods. DNA analysis is underway to confirm whether the species at the South Pole are indeed identical with those at the North Pole.
A gray whale is sighted near the village of Neshkan, Chukotka, Far Northeastern Russia. August 5, 2002. (Photo by Minoru courtesy Weiting Liu)
Just completed, the first comprehensive study of underwater marine life in Antarctica shows that the waters around the southern continent are inhabited by some 7,500 species of animals, about half of them found nowhere else on Earth.
On voyages to the Arctic, Census of Marine Life explorers have documented 5,500 species. In comparison, the total number of species in the world's oceans is estimated at up to 250,000.
"The polar seas, far from being biological deserts, teem with an amazing quantity and variety of life," says Australian marine scientist Dr. Ian Poiner, chair of the Census of Marine Life Scientific Steering Committee.
"Only through the co-operation of 500 people from more than 25 countries could the daunting environmental challenges be overcome to produce research of such unprecedented scale and importance. And humanity is only starting to understand the nature of these regions," he said.
The discoveries are the result of a series of perilous voyages conducted during International Polar Year, 2007-2008. Biologists braved waves up to 48 feet high while getting to and from the Antarctic, while their Arctic colleagues often worked under the watchful eye of armed lookouts to protect them from polar bears.
The scientists have learned that the Antarctic seafloor is a single bioregion, united by high-speed current, and a cold incubator for new species.
The RV Polarstern breaks a path through the Southern Ocean. Operated by the Alfred V. Wegener Institute, the research vessel served as a platform for marine scientists. (Photo by J. Ziegler courtesy Census of Marine Life)
Antarctic waters were previously thought to be low in species diversity and abundance, but Census of Antarctic Marine Life researchers and collaborators have sketched a different picture as they amassed biological data from nearly one million locations.
Those places include seafloors exposed to light for the first time in as long as 100,000 years when ancient ice shelf lids melted and disintegrated in recent years as the climate warms.
The scientists now have documented evidence of cold water species shifting towards both poles to escape rising ocean temperatures.
Census researchers last year established that several octopus types have repeatedly colonized the deep sea, each migration coinciding with retreating Antarctic ice over 30 million years.
Today they theorize that the Antarctic also regularly refreshes the world's oceans with new varieties of sea spiders and crustaceans related to shrimp and crabs. They believe the new species evolve when expansions of ice isolate Antarctica. When the ice retreats, they radiate northward along the same pathways as the octopuses.
Census researchers are using devices like cell phones to learn about the distribution of large animals at both poles. For instance, tracking devices fitted to narwhals, the unicorns of the ocean, record their Arctic migrations and provide as a by-product a wealth of data on the status of polar oceans.
SCUBA divers were deployed for observations in heavy Arctic ice and advanced, deep water optical systems on remotely operated vehicles enabled detailed studies of delicate marine animals too fragile to collect. Similar approaches recorded videos of penguins and seals under Antarctic ice.
Says scientist Victoria Wadley of the Australian Antarctic Division, "One hundred years ago, Antarctic explorers like Scott and Shackleton saw mostly ice. In 2009, we see life everywhere."
The abundance of Antarctic marine biodiversity is recorded in the SCAR-MarBIN database, which today contains close to one million marine life observations below the Antarctic Circle.
Sea ice sampling in fast ice near Barrow, Alaska. One scientist keeps watch for polar bears while others take ice samples. (Photo by Rolf Gradinger, U. Alaska-Fairbanks courtesy Census of Marine Life)
Started in the year 2000, the Census of Marine Life is an international science research program, operating out of a Secretariat based in Washington, DC. The Census unites thousands of researchers worldwide with the goal of assessing and explaining the diversity, distribution and abundance of marine life - past, present and future - by 2010.
Of the polar research, Poiner says, "In these unique oceans, where the water temperature is colder at the surface than below, we are establishing the first benchmarks of marine biodiversity against which change may be measured, a significant polar year legacy for future generations. The significant investment of nations, the skills of scientists from the many ocean research disciplines, and the social network of the Census of Marine Life made it happen."
"Antarctica is a cradle of life for polar species," said Rob Nicoll with WWF-Australia today. "In particular, the research shows it is an evolutionary garden for octopus, sea spiders and other bizarre deep sea creatures."
The polar oceans are "effective safe havens for species that arrive by chance," said Nicholl, and they have been an "engine of evolution offering the right ingredients of isolation and a wide range of habitats," he said.
Mimonectes sphaericus is a crustacean living on jellyfish and their kin in both Arctic and Antarctic waters. Only males have the sword-like antennae. (Photo by Russ Hopcroft, U. of Alaska Fairbanks courtesy Census of Marine Life)
WWF believes these isolated habitats are threatened by climate change, which is driving ocean acidification and increasing temperatures around the poles.
"It's yet another reason why the world's governments need to commit to deep emissions cuts at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December," said Nicoll, "otherwise, scientific expeditions like this will simply create a list of species in our oceans that will perish due to climate change."
The threat of climate change comes on top of other threats to the Antarctic's marine biodiversity from invasive species, oil spills, pollution through shipping and the actions of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing vessels that flout international rules.
"Networks of marine protected areas are urgently needed as the backbone of a conservation strategy for the Polar Oceans," Nicoll said.
"At the last meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctica Marine Living Resources governments again dragged their heels over designating meaningful large areas for protection in the Southern Ocean. With International Polar Year drawing to a close we need real action and not more rhetoric," Nicholl urged.
The International Polar Year, organized by the International Council for Science and the World Meteorological Organization, has been a scientific program focused on the Arctic and Antarctic from March 2007 to March 2009. Several thousand scientists from 60 nations conducted more than 200 projects.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.
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