Researchers from Securing Antarctica’s Environmental Future published a groundbreaking study in Biology Letters on March 22, unveiling the survival secrets of tiny Antarctic life that has endured in the continent since it was part of the forested Gondwana. The study shows how these minuscule creatures have managed to withstand the expansion and contraction of ice sheets over millennia by adapting to ice-free habitats.
The investigation focused on Antarctic springtails, small animals found in almost every ecosystem on Earth. Senior Research Scientist Dr. Mark Stevens from the South Australian Museum explained that scientists have long theorized that these creatures survived in ice-free refuges, such as rocky outcrops jutting out from ice-covered mountains. However, until now, there was no concrete evidence to support this idea.
By employing cosmogenic nuclide dating, a technique used to determine when a rock was last covered by ice, and analyzing the distribution data of Antarctic springtails, the research team discovered the locations where Antarctica’s smallest life forms managed to survive during the last ice age.
The researchers relied on published ice sheet reconstructions created using cosmogenic nuclide dating to identify ice-free areas during the last glacial maximum. They then overlaid over 120 years of distribution data of springtail habitats to see how they correlated.
According to Professor Andrew Mackintosh from Monash University, the study highlights the advantages of cross-disciplinary science. By using a method initially developed by geologists to understand how ice sheets respond to climate change, the researchers were able to reveal a biodiversity response to these changes.
Dr. Stevens explained that the highest levels of biodiversity in polar and alpine regions are found in ice-free areas directly adjacent to glacial ice. The animals inhabiting these ecosystems move in relation to the glacial margin, which may provide them with access to water.
As recent models predict that ice-free areas in Antarctica could expand by up to 25% by 2100, this poses a risk to the continent’s biodiversity. Professor Mackintosh emphasized that understanding how changes in Antarctic landscapes have shaped the lives of the biodiversity living there is crucial for anticipating their response to a changing climate.
This groundbreaking research offers new insights into the survival strategies of Antarctic life, helping scientists better understand how they might respond to an uncertain future under the impacts of climate change.
Mark I. Stevens et al, Location, location, location: survival of Antarctic biota requires the best real estate, Biology Letters (2023). DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2022.0590