Life hung by a thread: endurance of Antarctic fauna in glacial periods

Today, Antarctica exhibits some of the harshest environmental conditions for life on Earth. During the last glacial period, Antarctic terrestrial and marine life was challenged by even more extreme environmental conditions. During the present interglacial period, polar life in the Southern Ocean is sustained mainly by large-scale primary production. We argue that during the last glacial period, faunal populations in the Antarctic were limited to very few areas of local marine productivity (polynyas), because complete, multiannual sea-ice and ice shelf coverage shut down most of the Southern Ocean productivity within today's seasonal sea-ice zone. Both marine sediments containing significant numbers of planktonic and benthic foraminifera and fossil bird stomach oil deposits in the adjacent Antarctic hinterland provide indirect evidence for the existence of polynyas during the last glacial period. We advocate that the existence of productive oases in the form of polynyas during glacial periods was essential for the survival of marine and most higher-trophic terrestrial fauna. Reduced to such refuges, much of today's life in the high Antarctic realm might have hung by a thread during the last glacial period, because limited resources available to the food web restricted the abundance and productivity of both Antarctic terrestrial and marine life.


Publication status:
Authors: Thatje, Sven, Hillenbrand, Claus-Dieter, Mackensen, Andreas, Larter, Robert

On this site: Claus-Dieter Hillenbrand, Robert Larter
1 January, 2008
Ecology / 89