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Many factors make Antarctic ecosystems ideal for biological research. Their simplicity, for instance. Conditions are so harsh that few life forms survive above the ice. A simple, land-based ecosystem is easier to study. There are fewer variables to consider, so conclusions are easier to draw.The dry valley region, just a few miles from McMurdo, has an extremely basic ecosystem.
- All aspects of the Dry Valleys are studied, from the seasonal flow of glacial streams to microscopic worms, called nematodes, that live in the gravelly, dry soil.
- Researchers can focus on specific aspects of an ecosystem - microscopic animals or geologic processes - in relative isolation.
- As scientists begin to understand how these basic ecosystems work, they can apply this knowledge to systems that are more complex.
Under the ice, though, ocean life is rich, complex, and abundant. The Southern Ocean with its pack ice zone is a most unusual and highly specialized habitat, with ecosystems of great intrinsic scientific interest and resources of commercial value, such as krill, squid and fish. Past exploitation of these resources, particularly the baleen whales, has caused perturbations that provide a unique large-scale experiment.
In addition, the Antarctic region has relatively young terrestrial and inland water ecosystems, in which single species are often very abundant. These systems offer scientists a wealth of information about species adaptation and reproduction. What's more, the coastal region is ideal for the study of dispersal and colonization across great expanses of ice and ocean.
The unusual environmental conditions found on Antarctica, such as extreme cold and extreme seasonal and daily light cycles, offer unique opportunities for the study of evolutionary processes.
Biologists are interested in how these features affect adaptation and survival strategies in a wide variety of organisms not only within single generationsbut also over thousands of years.
Finally, in very few places on this planet are there environments where minor changes in climate so dramatically affect the capabilities of organisms to grow and reproduce. Therefore any biological research must take into account the effects of climate change, specifically global warming, on species' long term prospects.
- Except for a few tiny insects, algae, lichens, mosses, and microscopic life forms, the Antarctic interior is too barren and has too harsh an environment to support significant plant and animal life.
- The climate is too cold, dry, and windy, and the winter nights too long to encourage any but the most hardy organic growth.
- Virtually all life native to Antarctica is supported by the food-rich sea surrounding the continent.
- All are dependent upon each other as parts of a continuing food chain, beginning with phytoplankton (algae, particularly diatoms) and zooplankton (including krill) and extending through the fishes, squid, octopus, sea birds (including penguins), and the large marine mammals (whales, porpoises, and seals).
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