Census of Antarctic Marine Life
26 February 2009
The Census of Antarctic Marine Life (CAML) and its polar counterpart, Arctic Ocean Diversity, have pioneered new understandings of the evolution and diversity of life.
Led by the Australian Antarctic Division, CAML coordinated 18 major research voyages to Antarctica and the Southern Ocean during the IPY. Australian scientists participated in three CAML voyages focusing on waters adjacent to East Antarctica – known as the Collaborative East Antarctic Marine Census (CEAMARC). These voyages, aboard Japan's Umitaka Maru, France's L'Astrolabe and Australia's Aurora Australis, studied sea-bed communities and the deep pelagic (open ocean) zone of the region adjacent to Terre Adélie and George V Land.Altogether, CAML revealed that Antarctica is a single bioregion united by the Circumpolar Current – the largest current in the world. Previously thought to be low in species diversity, the Antarctic is now known to have an unexpected richness of life. In addition, molecular techniques show Antarctica to be the birthplace of many species, driven by glacial cycles over millions of years. For example, eight genera of octopus were in Antarctica 30 million years ago – about the time that the polar continent separated from South America. Since then, different octopus types have repeatedly colonised the deep sea, radiating northwards when the ice retreats. Similar patterns are expected with other species, including isopods (crustaceans related to shrimp and crabs) and sea spiders.
The recent collapse of several Antarctic Peninsula ice shelves has exposed seafloor communities to light for the first time. An expedition to the disintegrating Larsen A and B ice shelves showed newly exposed areas of the continental shelf attracting life from deeper waters on the slope, including sponges that rapidly colonise the sea floor disturbed by ice scour.
During the voyages, correspondents and photographers aboard research vessels sent words and pictures around the world via blogs and online and print articles, many of which can be accessed through the CAML website, Equipe Cousteau , and the educational and scientific websites of the International Polar Foundation. In February 2009 CAML received an award for 'overall exellence' from its parent program, the Census of Marine Life, for its approach to and success in science, education and outreach activities, and cooperation and collaboration.
A major legacy of CAML is the 'SCAR-MarBIN' (Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research Marine Biodiversity Network) dataportal, which contains data collected on some 14 000 species. This database of comprehensive information on Antarctic marine biodiversity will provide a baseline against which future change in marine communities around Antarctica can be assessed.In partnership with Canada's Guelph University, CAML is 'barcoding' (analysing DNA sequences) for some 3000 Antarctic species, with SCAR-MarBIN creating related data storage, analysis and visualization tools. Analysis of genetic variation across Antarctica, across different depths and/or between sub-Antarctic islands will then be possible. This work will be useful in identifying new species and 'cryptic' species (species that are difficult to distinguish from each other). Eventually, the information will be integrated with the Barcode of Life data system.
CAML is made possible by support from a broad range of private sources and government agencies in nations including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and South Africa.
The Census of Marine Life program will end in 2010. Related initiatives including barcoding and the Encyclopaedia of Life may continue beyond 2010 if funding is available. The international network of researchers in marine biodiversity will continue under the auspices of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.