Antarctic bioregions enhance conservation planning

A map showing the 15 bioregions in Antarctica.
The Antarctic Conservation Biogeographic Regions analysis was a collaborative effort between scientists from Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. The location of the 15 bioregions is illustrated on this map. (Map: Australian Antarctic Data Centre)
The McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica.

New research into the biogeography of Antarctica has identified 15 distinct regions on the continent and near-shore islands, which will assist future conservation planning.

The study, published in the journal Diversity and Distributions in June, examined the geography, geology, climate, flora and fauna of the ice-free areas of Antarctica and indentified 15 biologically distinct ‘Antarctic Conservation Biogeographic Regions’ (ACBRs).

Australian Antarctic Division terrestrial biologist and lead author Dr Aleks Terauds, says the study was the first continent-wide assessment of the biogeography of Antarctica using all the available biodiversity data.

‘In 2008 the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting adopted an Environmental Domains of Antarctica analysis developed by New Zealand, which classified Antarctica into 21 regions based on the physical environment, including climate, ice cover and geology,’ Dr Terauds says.

 ‘However, the Environmental Domains of Antarctica contain no biological information, so our study developed them further by incorporating biodiversity data.’

This data included more than 38 800 records of microbes, invertebrates and plants in the ice-free areas of the Antarctic continent, Antarctic Peninsula and close lying islands. Expert consultation also provided a consensus view for the location of biogeographic regions.

‘Our analysis revealed a complex ecosystem that can be divided into 15 very distinct and potentially delicate biogeographic regions, which are characterized by different climates, landscapes and species,’ Dr Terauds says.

This new perspective will improve conservation planning for Antarctica. The Antarctic Treaty System currently has a conservation framework for assigning Antarctic Specially Protected Areas, based on the Environmental Domains of Antarctica, which protects features independent of biological considerations. The study authors recommend that the new biogeographic regions be used to identify new protected areas and to manage the risk of transferring species between locations in Antarctica.

‘Several distinct bioregions identified in the ACBRs are not fully represented in the current Antarctic Specially Protected Area network,’ Dr Terauds says.

‘Each of the ACBRs should be managed as distinct areas of conservation significance and consideration should be given to representing them by at least one, but preferably more protected areas.’

‘Biosecurity measures between these ACBRs should also be developed to prevent biotic homogenization in the region.’

This is especially critical in an era of climate change and increasing human pressure on the ice-free areas of Antarctica.

‘With about 40 000 people visiting Antarctica over a summer, as tourists, scientists or station support personnel, there’s the potential for more species to be accidentally transferred to and within Antarctica,’ Dr Terauds says.

‘While quarantine procedures are already in place for inter-continental travel, such as cleaning clothing and equipment before arriving in Antarctica, there are fewer biosecurity measures for intra-continental movement.

‘The Antarctic Conservation Biogeographic Regions should be used in biosecurity planning to manage the risk of species, including species native to Antarctica, being transferred from one biogeographic zone to another.’

NISHA HARRIS and WENDY PYPER

Australian Antarctic Division