The waters around the Antarctic Peninsula are characterized by significant environmental changes and pronounced natural gradients in physical characteristics. The journal Polar Biology has now dedicated a special issue to this region. The articles in the issue report a wide range of results on the ecology of the Southern Ocean.

Every year, the Polarstern, the working horse of the German AWI brings groups of researchers down to Antarctica for their field studies. Next to that, the ship also delivers goods to the German station Neumayer III. Picture: Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Stefan Hendricks
Every year, the Polarstern, the working horse of the German AWI brings groups of researchers down to Antarctica for their field studies. Next to that, the ship also delivers goods to the German station Neumayer III. Picture: Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Stefan Hendricks

In 2013, Polarstern, the research icebreaker of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) headed for the waters off the northern Antarctic Peninsula. 50 researchers from a variety of scientific disciplines were on board for more than two months. In a multidisciplinary study, ranging from physical oceanography to the ecology of krill and whales, they examined the interplay between environment and biology in an Antarctic marine ecosystem. As one result of the cruise, the scientists revealed that different whale species (fin and humpback) avoid range overlap and lessen their competition for food by using different krill species as their main prey.

Humpback whales are observed more often again. In the cold waters around Antarctica, they find plenty of food, especially Krill. This makes them perfect study objects fort he researchers without whaling. Bild: Michael Wenger
Humpback whales are observed more often again. In the cold waters around Antarctica, they find plenty of food, especially Krill. This makes them perfect study objects fort he researchers without whaling. Bild: Michael Wenger

The researchers also reported that the fauna on the seabed primarily mirrors the large-scale differences in surface water temperature and ice cover. "This pattern is superimposed by a small-scale 'colourful patchwork' of different life forms," says AWI biologist Julian Gutt, the chief scientist of the cruise and lead guest editor of the special issue.

Fast growing life forms such as ascidians (white spheres with net-like structure), the bushy horn corals, and the branched sponges were most abundant in this reference area where a comparably rich life was found. The red organism is also a sponge. The yellow sphere is a snail. Picture: Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Julian Gutt
Fast growing life forms such as ascidians (white spheres with net-like structure), the bushy horn corals, and the branched sponges were most abundant in this reference area where a comparably rich life was found. The red organism is also a sponge. The yellow sphere is a snail. Picture: Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Julian Gutt

"Obviously a combination of a variety of environmental 'drivers' and biological interactions shape the occurrence and growth of organisms ranging from sponges, worms, and small crustaceans to the whales. The resulting high biodiversity, however, makes projections of the ecological impact of ongoing climate change very challenging," he continues.

Icefish; right lower corner: sea-cucumbers especially adapted for life on spines of a pencil sea urchin. Picture: Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Julian Gutt
Icefish; right lower corner: sea-cucumbers especially adapted for life on spines of a pencil sea urchin. Picture: Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Julian Gutt

Source: Alfred-Wegener-Institut