18 December 2009, by Tamera Jones

Close-up photographs of bizarre marine animals in one of the fastest-warming seas on Earth show the area is home to a huge diversity of life.

Scale worm

Scale worm, Laetmoice sp. Polychaete worms like this are often the most abundant large organisms on the continental shelf around the region.

The creatures include ice fish, octopus, sea pigs, giant sea spiders, rare rays and basket stars.

An international team of scientists collected the creatures from the Bellingshausen Sea in West Antarctica while on an expedition to study the diversity of life in the continent's self seas.

Expedition leader Dr David Barnes from the British Antarctic Survey reported the team's findings from Antarctica.

Sea pig.

Sea Pig (sea cucumber or Holothuroid). This was one of the most common and abundant animals.

Comparing the area to coral reefs, Barnes says, 'Few people realise just how rich in biodiversity the Southern Ocean is - a single trawl can reveal as fascinating an array of weird and wonderful creatures as would be seen on a coral reef.'

One of the expedition's aims is to figure out how some of these marine animals will respond to environmental change.

'These animals are potentially very good indicators of environmental change. Some live in the shallows, which are changing fast, while others live in deeper water which will warm much less quickly,' says Barnes.


Feather Star, Promachocrinus sp.

'Our research already shows that some of these species are incredibly sensitive to temperature changes,' he adds.

The team hopes the expedition will help to build a more complete picture of Antarctica's marine biodiversity. This will give researchers a baseline with which to compare future changes to marine life in the area.

Another scientist on the expedition, Dr Sophie Fielding, also from the British Antarctic Survey, found remarkable variations in species of krill living within a relatively small area. Krill are small crustaceans and a staple food source for penguins, seals and whales.

'We want to understand the impact of accelerating glaciers, collapsing ice shelves and shrinking ice cover on the food chain in this region,' she says.

Isopod crustaceans

Isopod Crustacean, Serolid sp. These animals (woodlice of the sea) appear as though they have been squashed and resemble fossil trilobites.

Young icefish

Young Icefish, Chaenocephalus aceratus. These fish are highly adapted to life in cold water with anti-freeze, but no red blood cells, in their blood.