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Biodiversity, evolution and ecosystems

Biodiversity, evolution and ecosystems

Remote and hostile, Antarctica harbours some of the most amazing creatures on the planet. It is also a powerful natural laboratory for studying biodiversity, evolution and the impacts of climate change. Cut off from the rest of planet, Antarctica's isolation and its cold climate have allowed some unique species to evolve.

Mostly covered in ice and snow, Antarctica is the driest, coldest and windiest continent on Earth. Little of its land surface can support life, so the communities of plants and animals that survive there consist of only a small number of species living in simple relationships. Because of the simplicity of these communities, Antarctica is an exceptionally useful place for scientists to uncover how ecosystems work.

A group of the Antarctic brachiopodsSome of the creatures in these communities are particularly interesting. Known as nematodes, their ancestors survived on tiny areas of land left uncovered during the last ice ages, more than one million years ago. By studying these nematodes, scientists at British Antarctic Survey (BAS) are able to increase our understanding of evolution and help reconstruct Antarctica's glacial history.

Unlike the land, the seas around Antarctica are home to a rich and diverse group of species that have evolved some unique ways of coping with the cold. Some Antarctic fish, for example, are the only vertebrates in the world that do not use red blood cells to carry oxygen around their bodies.

But because they are so well adapted to the cold, some of these species may not be able to cope with life in a warmer world. Climate change is likely to have a major impact on Antarctic species. From their research stations on and around the Antarctic Peninsula - one of the fastest warming parts of the planet - BAS scientists are well placed to study how these species are responding to climate change.

Compared with our understanding of the continent's plants and animals, we know very little about Antarctica's microbial life. Invisible to the naked eye, these organisms play a vital role in Antarctic ecosystems and, because they may help us produce new antibiotics and other compounds, are rich but untapped resource. At BAS, scientists are using state-of-the-art genetic methods to study the DNA of these microbes and, hopefully, harness their potential.