Lloyd Peck: Antarctic species could be lost in the coming years

From the marine biologist's Royal Institution Christmas lecture, broadcast on Channel 4
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The Independent Online

Antarctica: how can life exist in such a cold, sterile desert? This frozen frontier is home to some of the toughest, most well-adapted creatures on the planet. We can learn a lot from unlocking these secrets of extreme survival.

Antarctica: how can life exist in such a cold, sterile desert? This frozen frontier is home to some of the toughest, most well-adapted creatures on the planet. We can learn a lot from unlocking these secrets of extreme survival.

For most animals outside Antarctica, cold spells trouble; enzymes don't work effectively, nerves slow down and ice crystals can grow, bursting through the walls of cells like shards of glass. But life in Antarctica is abundant. Most creatures here in the sea are cold blooded - their body temperature is equal to their environment.

But for the first time in millions of years conditions in parts of Antarctica are changing fast. The Antarctic Peninsula is warming faster than anywhere on the globe. How will life cope with this sudden change? Sea temperatures around Antarctica have been cold for at least 10 million years. The species there have evolved in these chilly conditions. There are about 5,000 cold-blooded species that live in the Antarctic Ocean. Even a small rise in sea temperature could have a catastrophic effect on the marine ecosystem.

There are only a few things you can do if the environment deteriorates and life gets tough. You can cope with what you have. And we have seen that Antarctic marine animals do not cope well with rising temperature. You can evolve to the new conditions. Antarctic marine animals grow slowly and live a long, long time, so their ability to evolve new characters is very limited. You can migrate to better conditions. But Antarctica is almost round in outline, and sits over the pole. There is nowhere for marine animals to migrate to. This could have serious implications for the future of the Southern Ocean. We could lose large numbers of populations - even whole species - in the coming years.

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