Antarctica - a diversity of life in waiting
"States shall cooperate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth's ecosystem."
Principle 7, Rio Declaration, United Nations Earth Summit 1992.
Antarctica's Dry Valleys have long been regarded as the closest thing on Earth to the surface of Mars – a cold, lifeless desert.
Using modern molecular techniques, University of Waikato researchers tell a different story. Soils once thought to be sterile now appear to support an unexpectedly high diversity of microbial organisms, waiting for water and/or food to burst into life.
Having led New Zealand in terrestrial biological research in Antarctica for more than 25 years, the University of Waikato is now taking part in a multinational International Polar Year (IPY 2007-9) initiative designed to spark a new era in polar research. The last such year, 50 years ago, was marked by the founding of Scott Base and the beginning of New Zealand's cooperation with the US science programme in Antarctica.
The IPY project led by Waikato, in collaboration with the US National Science Foundation, is designed to study biocomplexity in the Ross Sea and draws together a team of 15 biologists, hydrologists, chemists and geologists from several universities here and overseas. Four of the scientists, including project leaders Professors Allan Green and Craig Cary, are Waikato biologists who will bring together a breadth of separate ongoing Antarctic research on lichens and mosses, microbial diversity, and small invertebrate fauna.
Biocomplexity is ecosystem research at a level above biodiversity. It examines organisms and their community structure, as well as interactions between them and the environment. It is an area of science that has moved beyond studying individual species to studying the "big picture" in order to inform efforts to protect or manage the environment, or to be able to forecast effects of climate change. The simplicity of the terrestrial biology system in Antarctica provides a unique opportunity to develop ecosystem research to a high level of sophistication.
External funding gratefully acknowledged: National Geographic Society, Antarctica New Zealand, and Foundation for Research, Science and Technology.
CENTRE FOR BIODIVERSITY AND ECOLOGY RESEARCH, FACULTY OF SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING