Antarctica divided into distinct biogeographic regions

Tierney Creek in the Vestfold Hills near Davis station (Photo: Mike Zupanc)
Tierney Creek in the Vestfold Hills near Davis station (Photo: Mike Zupanc)
Mawson station with David Range in the background (Photo: David Morrison)Antarctic Moss (Photo: Roger Kirkwood)

13th June 2012

New research into the biogeography of Antarctica has identified 15 distinct regions on the continent and near-shore islands.

The study, published in Diversity and Distribution Journal today, examined the geography, geology, climate, flora and fauna of the ice-free areas of Antarctica and identified the biologically distinct Antarctic Conservation Biogeographic Regions.

The lead author and Australian Antarctic Division terrestrial biologist Dr Aleks Terauds, said this is the first time there has been a continent-wide assessment of the biogeography of Antarctica using all of the available biodiversity data.

Dr Terauds is presenting the new research at the prestigious Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research lecture at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) in Hobart today.

“Previously terrestrial Antarctica has been divided into 2 main areas based on aspects like geography geology or specific types of biodiversity,” Dr Terauds said.

“The new research amalgamated 38,000 terrestrial records including the diverse biology such as microbes, invertebrates and plants.

“It revealed a complex ecosystem which can be divided into 15 very distinct and potentially delicate biogeographic regions which are characterized by different climates, landscapes and species,” Dr Terauds said.

Introduced species are identified as one of the biggest threats to the Antarctic terrestrial ecosystems, particularly in a warming climate.

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

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

“The Antarctic Conservation Biogeographic Regions represent an important basis for biosecurity measures to manage the risk of species, including species native to Antarctica, being transferred from one biogeographic zone to another.”

The collaborative effort, which involved scientists from Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and the UK identified the 15 areas as:

  • North-east Antarctic Peninsula
  • South Orkney Islands
  • North-west Antarctic Peninsula
  • Enderby Land
  • Dronning Maud Land
  • East Antarctica
  • North Victoria Land
  • South Victoria Land
  • Transantarctic Mountains
  • Ellsworth Mountains
  • Marie Byrd Land
  • Adelie Land
  • Ellsworth Land
  • South Antarctic Peninsula.

While Antarctica already has a series of Antarctic Specially Protected Areas, delegates at the ATCM are being urged to develop a broader representation of conservation regions based on this new biogeographic assessment.

More information

Learn more about the Australian Antarctic Division's science program on the icy continent with Chief Scientist, Dr Nick Gales:
[Video]

Australian Antarctic Science

Video transcript

Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting XXXV

Hobart June 2012

Australian Antarctic Science

Australian Antarctic Division Chief Scientist Dr Nick Gales

We’ve just started a new science strategic plan, the development of that plan was really about ensuring that all of the science that we do in Antarctica was aimed at our national and international priorities and goals and obviously the Antarctic Treaty system is fundamental to that.

We look into two major areas, one of them is ensuring that all of the activities conducted by humans are done so in a way that is sustainable and limits our footprint in Antarctica if you like. So that covers a whole range of things like building stations, cleaning up past pollution, looking at the areas we need to protect from human activities to preserve biodiversity.

The other area is trying to work out the role of Antarctica in global climate, in global weather systems and what might happen into the future.  So feeding into those global climate models with important information on how the plateau is changing, how much ice is melting, what’s happening to sea ice and then what’s happening to the biological systems that revolve around all of that physical change. So they’re the two major thrusts of the science.

Within the Treaty system we have the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living resources (CCAMLR) and that has a scientific committee. And that’s really about understanding how much krill there is, how the fisheries are going, ensuring that all of the management practices conducted by the Treaty members in that fishery are done sustainably.

The other part is through the Convention for Environmental Protection, which is another part of the Antarctic treaty system, and that’s where we work on the cleaning up of rubbish tips and then the work around station footprints.

So a large part of the way we are able to do our work is through collaborating with other nations and it is fundamental to us. In comparing notes on what we think are the priority areas of science, working how our logistics can be shared to get our scientists in to the deep field to collect ice-cores or sharing marine resources, like ships to go down and do surveys.

On your own you can do a certain amount, but it you collaborate broadly with the other nations in our area you can do so much more.

[Video]

Dr Aleks Terauds explains Antarctic bioregions

Video transcript

Dr Aleks Terauds

Australian Antarctic Division Terrestrial Biologist

Some of the research that was released this week was involved with looking at the bio-regionalisation of Antarctica and how terrestrial Antarctica can actually be divided up into 15 biologically distinct regions.

What we did in this analysis was we gathered together as much biodiversity information as we could, over 38,000 records, of things that live in terrestrial Antarctica and we put all this together in some spatial frameworks to work out what was different and what was similar to each other.

The 15 regions encompass all of Antarctica. On the northern peninsula for example, the Antarctic Peninsula, which is close to South America you get some grasses and cushion plants growing there for example that you don’t get growing anywhere else in Antarctica. We go across to East Antarctica you still get things like large moss beds which represent some of the most productive vegetation on the Antarctic continent. And then at the other extreme you have the dry valleys in the Ross Sea region.

The implications of these areas are quite important for movements within Antarctica. By showing that these 15 regions are biologically different to each other we also know that we have to be careful moving within these regions within Antarctica. We also have to think about bio-security measures that are needed to prevent the transfer of life and the homogenisation of biodiversity. 7

At the moment we have a very good starting framework for bio-security protocols in existence already. The tourism industry and through the Council for Managing National Antarctic Programs have got very good protocols in place and they’re effective. I think we have a good starting point and I think that there is scope for further development into the future.

It’s really only in the last few years that people are travelling to so many different parts of Antarctica from so many different locations and so we are actually starting at a pretty good point in terms of trying to make sure that we don’t transfer to much biodiversity between these unique regions. There’s no doubt that it’s probably happened in small areas of Antarctic already, but we are hoping now with this new research and perhaps development of better protocols that we can stop it into the future.

This page was last modified on 13 June 2012.