arctic life, Antarctic life, life in the arctic
University of Alaska Fairbanks, Census of
Marine Life, Russ Hopcroft/AP
A shell-less pteropod or swimming snail,
found in both Arctic and Antarctic waters,
which preys exclusively on its fellow
shelled pteropods.

Marine Census Reveals Hundreds of Identical Species Inhabit Both Poles

February 18, 2009 07:32 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
A sea life census has found hundreds of the same species that live in both Arctic and Antarctic waters, emphasizing the scientific and biological importance of the regions.

Same Species Found at Both Poles

The Census of Marine Life is an ongoing 10-year project that began two years ago and aims to clarify how richly diverse underwater life is. Most recently, scientists engaged in the census “have determined that at least 235 species live in both polar seas,” but just how this phenomenon occurred remains unknown, reports Live Science. Climate change, and specifically “warm water between the regions,” has been suggested as cause for the separation of species, ranging from large animals like grey whales to tiny worms and crustaceans. 

Perhaps most significantly, these census results have given researchers insight into polar seas’ ability to “act as incubators for life.” Ian Poiner, chair of the project’s Census Scientific Steering Committee, told LiveScience, “The polar seas, far from being biological deserts, teem with an amazing quantity and variety of life.”

UK newspaper The Guardian asserts that global warming has altered “distribution, abundance and diversity of marine life in the polar seas.” Scientists working on the Arctic Ocean Diversity (Arcod) project affiliated with the Census of Marine Life have been studying and documenting shifts in behavior of warm-water crustaceans, which they say could forecast dramatic changes in polar seas by 2050.

The Arctic and Antarctic regions remain largely mysterious and unstudied, which has allowed for the current census to offer significant discoveries and insights. “These findings are a major part of new information because so little was really known historically about these regions,” census chief scientist Ron O’Dor told The Guardian.

A December 2008 editorial in The New York Times said “[o]ne of the more striking conclusions” of the census is that polar islands, such as the South Orkney Islands, could be the last global regions that have experienced “relatively little” change in biodiversity over the past 100 years, leaving much to explore.

Background: The Arctic and Antarctic Regions

The National Snow and Ice Data Center outlines and explains the distinctly different geographical features of the Arctic and Antarctic regions. For example, “The Arctic is a semi-enclosed ocean, almost completely surrounded by land. As a result, the sea ice that forms in the Arctic is not as mobile as sea ice in the Antarctic.”

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) calls the Arctic “perhaps the world’s most precious environment.” The Arctic is the world’s “largest and least fragmented” inhabited region, and is home to sea creatures like whales and walruses, as well as land animals like arctic wolves and foxes. The WWF has information on several Arctic species, bodies of water and “ecoregions.”

The National Science Foundation (NSF) presents information on Arctic and Antarctic discoveries, including insight into “human migration and local knowledge” and “the importance of sea ice.” The NSF reports that humans have inhabited the Arctic “for thousands of years and the region offered the first migratory route for humans moving into North America.” The presence of sea ice, which “plays a major role in global climate change,” is part of what makes the Arctic and Antarctic regions so crucial, the NSF reports.

Related Topic: Pangea and continental drift

In 1912, German meteorologist Alfred Lothar Wegener contended that a supercontinent, Pangea, began splitting apart about 200 million years earlier, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

His theory was based largely on the presence of “identical fossil species along the coastal parts of Africa and South America.” Wegener hypothesized that it “was physically impossible for most of these organisms to have swum or have been transported across the vast oceans.”

He asserted that the presence of the same species on continents an ocean apart “was the most compelling evidence that the two continents were once joined.”

Reference: Census of Marine Life and Polar Research

According to Scientific American, about 5,300 new species have been identified by Census of Marine Life scientists, and the “final tally of sea creatures” is expected to reach nearly 230,000. The results of the census are to be released in October 2010, and will include findings from about 2,000 scientists hailing from 82 countries.

Last November, census scientists convened at the World Conference on Marine Biodiversity in Valencia, Spain. In addition to discussing discoveries up to that point, the meeting was intended to “identify future research priorities.”

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