Monash University to lead historic biodiversity expedition in the Antarctic

Monash University will lead the terrestrial biodiversity segment of a major new exploration in the Antarctic which will aim to provide better understanding of its ecosystem and how climate changes affects wildlife in Earth’s southernmost continent.

The Olsen Valley on South Georgia, one of the islands to be visited by the Antarctic circumnavigation Expedition.  Image credit: Steven L. Chown, Monash University.

The Olsen Valley on South Georgia, one of the islands to be visited by the Antarctic circumnavigation Expedition.
Image credit: Steven L. Chown, Monash University

Professor Steven Chown of Monash’s School of Biological Sciences will lead an international group of 24 scientists from Australia (Monash University, South Australian Museum, University of Queensland, Australian Antarctic Division, CSIRO), and from a number of Universities from around the world to investigate terrestrial biodiversity of the region and its responses to rapid and extensive environmental change.

He said the team will visit many sites across the sub-Antarctic and Antarctica as part of the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition, which is the inaugural expedition of the newly formed Swiss Polar Institute.

“This major Antarctic expedition is highly likely to uncover new species of animals and plants, which, in itself is very exciting,” Professor Chown said.

“Crucially the findings will help us develop new ways to help conserve biodiversity in the Antarctic region as well as providing innovative tools to help managers reduce threats to ecosystems from invasive species as a result of climate change.”

The expedition, widely considered to be the most significant Antarctic expedition since the mid 1800s, is made up of about 22 projects covering a wide range of areas; from carbon in the deep sea — involving marine work — to sea bed populations.

“For us the most significant thing is understanding how life evolved in the region. So many of these islands are really isolated and a good question is, well how did things get there?” Professor Chown said.

“And these are all unresolved questions, you’d think now in the 21st century we’d know all this, but we don’t. It’s such an amazing remote place.”

He said scientists already had some information on how the area is being affected by climate change, which point to the conclusion that invasive species will come out as the winners, and indigenous species the losers.

“So if you think of species that evolved there, that were there before humans arrived for the first time in the 18th century and the 19th century, and then you compare them with species we introduced — either with ships by accident, or sometimes with fodder from sheep when the early stations were being established,” Mr Chown told the ABC.

“It seems to us that the non-indigenous species, the invasive ones, really prefer it quite warm. And not only that they develop faster with more heat — of course insects develop, they’re not like us, they can’t regulate their body temperatures, so the warmer it is the faster the go. But the rate at which that development increases seems faster for the invasive species. So the signal seems to suggest that invasive species will be winners under warming and indigenous ones will be losers.

The expedition will being on 20 December and will last until 18 March.