A warming Antarctica will create new animal habitats.
As climate change continues to cause massive melting and ice loss in Antarctica, new habitats may begin to open up for wildlife across the thawing continent, scientists reported Wednesday. But while that may sound like a boon for plants, microbes, birds and other organisms, they caution that this is not necessarily a good thing for the fragile Antarctic ecosystem.
As more ice-free space opens up across the continent, previously isolated species may begin to spread out and come in contact with each other. And as they’re increasingly forced to compete for resources, some organisms may emerge dominant — and others may start to disappear, write a team of researchers in a new study, just published in the journal Nature.
While Antarctica is a largely frozen continent, isolated ice-free areas — including exposed mountaintops, cliffs, valleys and islands — are already scattered across the region and may range in size from less than a square mile to hundreds of square miles. They may be separated by anywhere from a few feet to dozens or hundreds of miles.
Secluded as they may be in some cases, these areas can be home to various species of vegetation, microbes, worms or insects and other small organisms, and may also serve as breeding grounds for animals like seals and seabirds. These species tend to be highly specialized for the extreme conditions in which they live. Some of them may be dormant throughout much of the year. Others may have developed specific adaptations that allow them to survive in conditions with high winds, little water or extreme low temperatures.
Additionally, some species are found only in very specific areas — in fact, a few have only been recorded in a single ice-free zone. Others may be more widespread across the continent, but may have developed different adaptations in different areas. In general, Antarctica is home to many diverse and fragile communities that may be highly susceptible to environmental change.