Protecting Antarctic Marine Ecosystems: From Anemones to Whales

Antarctic Anemone, Ross Sea. Photo copyright John Weller.

Over the past few years, I’ve written a lot about efforts to create marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean. For someone like me, who works on these issues and studies the Antarctic environment, the justification for MPAs is obvious. Antarctic ecosystems are bursting with incredible marine life, much of which we have yet to study in depth. Setting aside some of these remarkable habitats would benefit science as well as the ecosystems themselves. But many people don’t get to see the Southern Ocean I see. They may not have heard that new species are discovered there all the time. Or that early scientific predictions that Antarctic biodiversity would be low have definitively been proven false. After learning about the surprisingly diverse fauna of this region, I have developed a deep appreciation for them, particularly for often overlooked species like salps and glass sponges. They may lack the glamor of penguins, whales, and seals, but they too play critical ecosystem roles. Even iconic species may be known mostly for being photogenic, even though they have other impressive attributes.

Photo: Antarctic glass sponge
Antarctic glass sponges such as the one on the right may be some of the world’s longest-lived animals. Photo copyright Bjørn Gulliksen.

To help get the word out about why MPAs in the Antarctic are so important, we decided to embark on a project profiling some of our favorite Antarctic species. It is often said in the environmental community that people will only protect what they love. Every day for the next 33 days, my organization and our partners in the Antarctic Ocean Alliance will post about a different animal, giving everyone an excellent opportunity to know these creatures better. It’s kind of like when a magazine or newspaper publishes a list of the most influential or beautiful people, but with more interesting subjects.

Why 33? This fall, the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) will hold its 33rd annual meeting. As in previous years, the designation of MPAs in the Ross Sea and East Antarctica will be discussed. CCAMLR committed to the creation a network of Southern Ocean MPAs several years ago. Unfortunately, since then the 25 Members of CCAMLR (24 countries and the EU) have gotten embroiled in debates about territorial claims and monitoring plans, instead of fulfilling their commitment. The 33 Species project aims to ensure that the focus of discussions about Southern Ocean MPAs stays where it belongs: on Antarctic marine ecosystems and the species that depend on them.

Scientists have yet to fully study many Antarctic animals, and make new discoveries about their physiology and behavior regularly. Recently, scientists have reported that minke whales have an unusual strategy of “lunging” for krill under sea ice at extremely fast rates. That feat pales in comparison to another recent discovery of sea anemones that live upside-down on the underside of sea ice, somehow managing to burrow into it despite apparently not having any body parts that are capable of cutting through ice. One of my personal favorites is Gersemia antarctica, a soft coral that feeds by bending over and brushing itself against the seafloor to eat the nutritious sediments that have fallen from above. Then it moves itself to another location to find fresh food, something no other soft coral is known to do. These are just a few examples of how the Antarctic continues to astonish and delight us. After all, what’s not to love about a place that has both penguins and colossal squid?

To learn more about moving soft coral and the rest of the 33 Antarctic species we love, check here or here every day from now until October 20 (the full list is here). These species represent only a small slice of Antarctica’s marine life. Nevertheless, I am sure you will find them fascinating – and hopefully lovable. All around the world, policymakers, scientists, and the public have found that MPAs are the best way to protect the marine species they love and the ocean we all depend on for survival. At the meeting this fall, let’s hope that CCAMLR Member countries show leadership and ensure that all Antarctic species, from the cute and cuddly to the weird and wacky, have a healthy ecosystem to call home.

Antarctic echinoderms in the Southern Ocean
Antarctica’s rich and diverse invertebrate species are still being discovered and studied. Photo copyright John Weller.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Claire Christian is the Interim Executive Director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, an organization dedicated to protecting and preserving the Antarctic environment.