Antarctic Ecosystems Programme

whale tail surfaces in front of iceberg in Antarctica

Our Antarctic Ecosystem Programme focuses on how individual species and communities are constrained by the unique Antarctic environment and how the species and communities respond to environmental variability and change. It involves research ranging from the cellular to the ecosystem level in both the marine and terrestrial meltwater ecosystems.

Antarctic ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to change. Ice plays a huge role in structuring these systems, through its roles as a substrate, an isolating layer and the dominant source of liquid water. Changes to the ice-water balance can propagate through physical, chemical and biological interactions.

Marine and land-based ecosystems of Antarctica are characterised by organisms that have, over millennia, adjusted to low temperatures, unusual light regimes and highly seasonal food supply. They have evolved in near-isolation from the rest of the planet. Factors such as climate change, increases in UV radiation, global transport of pollutants and the introduction of invasive species are altering these communities, which with slow growth and long generation times may be poorly equipped to cope with rapid change. Increasing human presence, due to tourism, fishing and research, has brought concerns about habitat destruction, overfishing, pollution and other toxic effects on the environment.

Changes in Antarctic and Southern Ocean ecosystems will accompany local and global changes. Understanding these changes and linkages will allow scientists to better predict ecosystem responses to future change, and enable sensible management to maximise the chance of retaining the unique attributes of Antarctic ecosystems.   

Key projects and researchers

The marine environment is characterised by organisms that have, over millennia, adjusted to low temperatures, unusual light regimes and highly seasonal food supply. We undertake research aimed at understanding these adaptive mechanisms in key species of invertebrates and fish, which then allows an understanding of the impacts that changes (such as temperature increases and ice regime changes) may have on finely tuned physiologies. Current research focus is on determining how Antarctic fish respond to chronic (long term) temperature increase, in particular how they acclimate to the new temperatures and how this affects their energy budgets.

Bill Davison

Fish Physiology
Fields of Research:
- Antarctic biology
- Biology of fish
- Cardiovascular physiology
- Exercise physiology
- Physiology ...

An eco-physiological approach is taken to understand responses to environmental stressors by species on higher trophic levels of the Antarctic marine ecosystems. Penguins are marine top predators in Antarctica therefore ideal sentinel species for ecosystem health. They are dependent on intact and predictable food webs (they need a certain prey at a particular time and place to survive and reproduce) as well as appropriate weather and sea ice conditions. However, linking their population responses to this mix of driving variables in ways that allow robust prediction requires a high level of mechanistic understanding. Our research focuses on studying health and condition-related physiological responses to different competitive, parental and environmental challenges in Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae). This will allow us to understand a population’s response to environmental change, especially for a species faced with profound changes to its habitat.

This project investigates inland meltwater ecosystems, which are foci of biodiversity and production in otherwise barren, arid catchments. They are extremely sensitive to climate changes that affect transitions between ice and water. Our research in these systems seeks a mechanistic understanding of links between climate, water generation, water chemistry and the dominant microbial biota (their identity, organisation and physiology). This project focuses on pond and lake ecosystems and assesses their resistance and resilience to climate variability. This is done by quantifying the factors that determine the physical and chemical characteristics of these habitats and how these characteristics affect diversity and productivity of biological communities. A central research hypothesis is: interaction between different types of inland ecosystems, including exchange of species, plays a role in overall system resilience and organisms selected from a common pool produce a range of emergent structures and consortia under different conditions. If this is true, it argues for a management approach that focuses on protecting habitat variety and the species pool rather than specific locations.

Ian Hawes

Fields of Research:
- Antarctic Limnology
- Aquatic Photosynthesis

As well as indirect impacts of human activities through climate change, direct impacts occur in Antarctica. Indeed, researchers can be the dominant vectors for contaminants. UC research is aimed at understanding how contaminants arrive in Antarctica and how they behave once there. These are essential precursors to the development of appropriate management policies. Our research currently focuses on chemical contaminants and how they behave in ocean waters and soils. Work is ramping up on exotic organisms, including avian viral diseases and aquatic microinvertebrates. Pathways for exotic chemicals and organisms reaching Antarctica may be similar but the ability of invasive species to spread may pose a greater risk, particularly in a warming world.

Sally Gaw

Associate Professor
Fields of Research:
- Environmental Chemistry
- Fate and behaviour of contaminants in the environment
- Human ...

Key collaborators

  • Dr Phil Lyver (Landcare Research Manaaki Whenua, Lincoln)
  • Dr David Ainley (H.T. Harvey and Associates, Los Gatos, USA)
  • Professor Dawn Sumner (University of California, Davis, USA)
  • Professor Peter Doran (University of Illinois Chicago, USA)
  • Dr Anne Jungblut (Natural History Museum, London, UK)
  • Dr Grant Northcott (Plant and Food Research, NZ)
  • Professor Michael Axelsson and Dr Erik Sandblom (Goteborg University, Sweden)
  • Professor Stuart Egginton (Birmingham University, UK)