Antarctica – a diversity of life in waiting


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 can now 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.

The University of Waikato has led New Zealand’s terrestrial biological research in Antarctica for more than 25 years, and is home to the International Centre for Terrestrial Antarctic Research (ICTAR), partnered with Gateway Antarctica at the University of Canterbury.

ICTAR Director Professor Craig Cary is a microbial ecologist with an interest in bacteria which live in extreme environments.

He leads a Marsden-funded project with Associate Professor Ian McDonald looking at the bacteria living in the high temperature soils on Mount Erebus. He is also working with Dr Charles Lee of the University’s Thermophile Research Unit on another Marsden-funded project to research the bacteria living in the dry valleys of Antarctica.

Together with Professor Allan Green, an expert on Antarctic lichens and mosses, Professor Cary recently led a study of terrestrial ecosystem biocomplexity in the Ross Sea region in collaboration with the US National Science Foundation.  This was the largest and most comprehensive landscape scale study of this kind ever undertaken.

Part of the International Polar Year (IPY 2007-9) initiative, the project drew together an international team of biologists, hydrologists, chemists and geologists to deliver a GIS/biodiversity database model linking biodiversity, landscape and environmental factors.

Biocomplexity is “big picture” ecosystem research which aims 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.