Antarctica Ecology


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Another in my Ecology series.  When people think of Antarctica, I imagine they usually picture barren fields of ice and relentless snowstorms, with the occasional mob of marching penguins.  But there’s actually a fair amount of life on the southernmost continent—at least, on the large peninsula of land that juts out towards South America.  For this piece, I wanted to showcase as much of that life as I could fit on one page, without looking too crowded.  Starting with the border, and going from lower left, circling over the top and down to the lower right, the animals are:

Snowy Sheathbill or “Mutt” (Chionis alba)—the only primarily land-based bird on Antarctica.  All the others are either airborne hunters (gulls, skuas and albatross) or aquatic (penguins).  The nickname “mutt” apparently comes from their habit of scavenging around research stations on the Peninsula.

Adélie Penguin (Pygoscelis adélie)—the most abundant penguin on Antarctica.

Emperor Penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri)—the more famous penguin, although not nearly as common as the Adélie

Blue-eyed Shag (Phalacrocorax atriceps)—a species of cormorant.  Cormorants are diving birds that can swim to great depths in pursuit of fish.  The blue-eyed shag ranges from the Antarctic Peninsula, through the subantarctic islands (an archipelago stretching from the southern continent to South America) all the way to Chile and Argentina.

Fur Seal (Arctocephalus gazella)—a member of the eared seal family (Otariidae), a group which includes the familiar California sea lion.  Otariids are distinguished from true seals (phocids) by: 1.) the small flaps over their ears (which give the family their name), 2.) stronger pectoral muscles and foreflippers; 3.) hind flippers that can swivel forward.  The latter two features allow eared seals to maneuver much easier on land than true seals.

Antarctic Tern (Sterna vittata)

Southern Elephant Seal (Mirounga leonina)—a True Seal (Phocidae).  Well-known for the males enlarged proboscis, which is used to amplify the animal’s roars during competitions for mating rights.

Southern Giant Petrel (Macronectes giganteus) (above the elephant seal)— petrels possess a tube-like covering over the nostrils at the base of the bill.  This structure is believed to enhance the animal’s sense of smell-- a major advantage for these opportunistic feeders.

Southern Polar Skua (Catharacta maccormicki)—an aggressive Antarctic predator.  Although their diet is primarily fish, they are strong and aggressive enough to kill and run off with penguin chicks as big as they are.  Skuas will also harass other seabirds until the victim regurgitate their stomach contents, which the skua then steals.

Leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx)—One of the top predators in Antarctic waters (aside from orcas).  About 50% of its diet is krill, the other half being penguins and the young of other seals. Although the leopard seal’s teeth are well-adapted for straining krill from the water, they are not very good at slicing up larger prey.  Thus the seal often has to dismember its food by repeatedly smashing it against the surface of the water.

Icefish (Chaenocephalus sp.)—unique among fishes in that they do not possess hemoglobin, the molecule in blood cells that binds to and transports oxygen.  Although oxygen does circulate in solution within the icefish’s blood system it is at a much lower concentration than in most other fishes-- even other Antarctic dwellers.  Icefish have several adaptations to compensate for this lack: 1.) their blood volume per weight is 2-3 times greater than the volume in other fish, meaning they have more plasma for oxygen to dissolve into, 2.) they possess a large heart, allowing them to pump all this blood (and thus oxygenate it) much faster than a normal fish, 3.)Their gills are larger, thus providing more surface area for oxygen uptake. 

Brittlestar—Abundant, opportunistic feeders on the Antarctic seafloor.

 The animals within the Antarctic scenes are:

Orca (Orcinus orca)—this top predator, the largest member of the dolphin family, is found in every ocean of the world.

Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)—a major consumer of krill in the Antarctic waters

That triangle on the middle right side showcases the foundation of the Antarctic food web—the abundant krill, copepods and other plankton that are fed upon by fish, penguins, seals, whales, terns, petrels, etc. who are in turn fed on by other seals, orcas, skuas… Life in Antarctica would not be possible without the humble plankton.

The bottom of this piece showcases the anemones, sponges, soft corals and plentiful starfish that live on the Antarctic seafloor.  That weird, yellow, spider-looking thing next to the sheathbill is a gigantic pycnogonid, or sea spider (though they are only distantly related to the terrestrial arachnids.)  While sea spiders in milder climates are only a few centimeters long, Antarctic species can have a leg span bigger than a human hand.

Although I wasn’t able to depict it here, the Antarctic seafloor is composed, not of sand or mud, but the spicules of sponges.  Spicules are tiny silica structures, shaped like spikes, hooks and caltrops, that form the skeletal support structures of sponges.  

Most of the information for this piece was obtained from:

 Natural History of the Antarctic Peninsula written by Sanford Moss and illustrated by Lucia deLeiris

and from the website:

Diving Under Antarctic Ice



Antarctica ©2010 John Meszaros.  All Rights Reserved