La Trobe University geneticist Dr Jan Strugnell is a key member of a seven-nation scientific team that has just announced the discovery of more than thirty new – and so far unclassified – species of Antarctic marine life.
The species were found in the Amundsen Sea off Pine Island Bay, one of the least explored areas of the Southern Ocean.
Dr Strugnell says the site contains troughs and basins, some more than 1,600 metres deep, formed during previous ice ages.
She was part of a team of marine biologists from British Antarctic Survey and other collaborating institutes on a summer research survey of the area in 2008.
Usually difficult to access, declining summer sea-ice enabled scientists to reach the continental ice-shelf edge. Dr Strugnell says the findings are highly significant.
‘While much oceanographic research reports on ice-shelf decrease, little is known about the fauna that lives there.’
She says as well as the 30 new species, others had not been seen in Antarctic waters before.
The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) reported that echinoderms were the most abundant of these.
‘This group includes starfish, sea urchins and sea cucumbers. Among the new species to Antarctica was a bathysciadiid limpet which was found feeding on the beak of a dead octopus.
‘What surprised the scientists was the extent of the various communities living in the deep troughs. It’s thought they may have taken refuge in them during past periods of glacial expansion,’ the BAS said.
A total of 5,469 specimens, from 275 species, were brought to the surface.
Dr Strugnell is a former Rhodes Scholar who has previously made headlines with her research into the evolution of deep-sea octopuses.
Her doctoral study at Oxford was the first to combine molecular and fossil evidence to estimate dates of divergence for octopus, squids and cuttlefish.
She says modern molecular studies have revealed that the Southern Ocean is teeming with a huge diversity of previously unknown marine life.
She was also part of an international study that last year reported a surprise finding: that there may well be just one species of giant squid, rather than the 21 previously described species.
This added fuel to the giant squid debate. Spanning up to 18 metres, these creatures have puzzled and captured the imagination of biologists and lay people alike.
The latest findings about marine life in Antarctica were reported on 5 December 2013, in Continental Shelf Research, after extensive analysis by experts from all over the world who helped identify the animals.
The study’s lead author is Dr Katrin Linse from the British Antarctic Survey.
The research was carried out by 20 scientists from the UK, Germany, France, Belgium, the USA and Spain. The only other Australian institution involved was the Biology Section of Museum Victoria.
Ernest Raetz, Media and Communications: 041 226 1919
Image credit: Mark Brandon