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  • Antarctica – a land of extremes

    Antarctica is the highest, whitest, driest, coldest and windiest continent on Earth. It’s so cold that creatures often retreat to the sea to warm up. Add 24 hours of darkness during the winter months, and it’s a wonder anything lives there. Yet, Antarctica has thriving ecosystems on land and in the water.

    An ecosystem is an interacting system made up of animals, plants, microorganisms and the physical and chemical environment they live in. Antarctica has marine ecosystems and terrestrial (land-based) ecosystems. Ecosystems rely on food webs – where energy and nutrients are passed from one living thing to another.

    New Zealand ecosystem research

    Two of the three research themes supported by Antarctica New Zealand involve protection, conservation and management of Antarctic ecosystems. Scientists study large marine creatures like Adélie penguins and Weddell seals, but they are also interested in really small benthic marine organisms.

    Knowledge of megafauna like seals is crucial for understanding the ecosystem for its own sake and for understanding climate change. The top predators are like the gauge on the petrol tank.

    Dr Regina Eisert

    Scientists also research what lives on the land. Antarctica is a polar desert. Terrestrial life is limited to the very small. There are no trees or shrubs, so vegetation is mainly mosses, lichens and algae. Springtails are one of the largest living terrestrial organisms – however, these invertebrates are only 1–3 mm in length! Mites and microscopic organisms like nematodes and bacteria live in the soil.

    Adaptations for life in the freezer

    Animals and plants that live in Antarctica have special adaptations that allow them to survive in the extreme conditions.

    Penguins have thick, windproof and waterproof feathers. Penguins, whales and seals have thick layers of fat called blubber. Blubber acts as an insulator, helping to keep the animals warm. Antarctic animals often have small extremities (flippers and feet) to reduce heat loss.

    Nature of science

    Dr Amy Whitehead counts Adélie penguins – continuing research that began in the 1980s. Scientific knowledge is developed by a process of on-going inquiry, sometimes over months, years, decades or even centuries.

    Plants are small and close to the ground to help protect them from fierce winds and dehydration. Algae can live in spaces between sandstone rocks where moisture and light are available. Lichens can carry out photosynthesis at very, very low temperatures and can survive dry periods by becoming dormant. Some invertebrates intentionally dehydrate to avoid damage caused by freezing.

    Humans, ecosystems and adaptations

    People living in Antarctica become part of the ecosystem. In the past, we weren’t too worried by this. Adventurers took pack animals to carry goods. Rubbish, huts and fuel spills were left behind when boats arrived to take explorers off the continent and back home. It’s very different today. People living in Antarctica do their best to minimise their impact on the environment.

    Nigel walks along the tracks made by others while he crosses the Dry Valleys and carries a special bottle to store his urine to ensure he leaves nothing behind.

    One way Nigel and those living at Scott Base cannot avoid changing the landscape is with the buildings and transportation. Unlike the native plants and animals, humans have precious few adaptations for extreme weather living and travel! As an introduced species, we depend on well insulated clothing, buildings and vehicles to survive and navigate the icy continent.

    On Thin Ice: Nigel Latta in Antarctica

    Watch Series 1/Episode 1

    • Adélie penguins (video timecode 16:00–25:19)
    • Dry Valleys terrestrial ecosystems (video timecode 25:30–31:00)

    Watch Series 1/Episode 2

    • Adélie penguins (video timecode 16:30–21:10)
    • Weddell seals (video timecode 2:25–9:00)
    • Dry Valleys terrestrial ecosystems (video timecode 24:45–30:40)

    Antarctic life

    Nigel gets up close with some of the Antarctic natives – from the very big (minke whales) to the very small (springtails). Use these Science Learning Hub resources to read about the animal, plant and microscopic life in Antarctica.

    Plants on ice
    Life in the freezer

    Activity ideas

    Nigel sits in a small building (called a room with a view) and muses on Adélie penguin adaptations. These activities also get students musing about adaptations for life in the freezer. Both activities include a literacy component in which students use reading skills to locate and integrate information.

    Animal and plant adaptations has students design a unique animal or plant capable of living in Antarctic conditions.

    In Hiding in plain sight students investigate fish camouflage adaptations.

    The education research article Reading aloud text with secondary students relates how one teacher used these Hub activities to help students with both their reading and their understanding of adaptation.

    Antarctic ecosystems

    Nigel visits the Dry Valleys and penguin and seal colonies. He chats with Kiwi scientists who study these unique ecosystems. Learn more about ecosystems with these resources:

    Antarctic marine ecosystem
    Antarctic terrestrial ecosystem
    Benthos – life on the seabed
    Food web of the Ross Sea

    Activity idea

    The activity Making a food web enables students to describe relationships between organisms within the Antarctic ecosystem and build their own food web to show the interdependence of organisms in an ecosystem.

    Citizen science projects

    These citizen science projects ask for help to analyse images of Antarctic life:

    • Crabeater Seals – Tomnod – Crabeater seals live in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica and are thought to be one of the most abundant mammals on Earth – but is this really true?
    • Weddell Seals – Zooniverse – Help analyse images for information about changes in seal population numbers. This work could give important insights into the health and functioning of the Antarctica ecosystem.
    • Penguin Watch – Zooniverse – Help scientists establish valuable baseline data about the numbers, locations, habits and health of penguins in a range of Southern Ocean sites.

    Useful links

    Find out more about food webs in our Food webs Pinterest board.

    Find out more about the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

    Discover more about Adélie penguins and Weddelll seals on the Australian Antarctic Division website.

      Published 24 September 2015, Updated 20 February 2021 Referencing Hub articles
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