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.
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.
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.
"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.