Viewed on a map, South Georgia Island is a speck in the vast Southern Ocean. But new research by the British Antarctic Survey suggests that the waters surrounding the tiny island are home to a disproportionately large slice of marine life.
Nearly 1,500 species live off the coast of the former whaling outpost, including many found nowhere else on Earth. That puts South Georgia and the nearby Sandwich Islands ahead of well-known biodiversity hot spots like Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.
"We knew a lot of work had been done on the island, but we didn't have a full picture of how many species there were," said the new study's lead author, marine ecologist Oliver Hogg. "So we were quite surprised -- and a bit excited -- when the figures started increasing so much."
His study, co-authored with British Antarctic Survey colleagues David Barnes and Huw Griffiths, was published online yesterday by the journal PLoS One.
The researchers examined more than 125 years of records collected by scientific expeditions and fisheries vessels to construct the fullest picture yet of the wide array of fish, sea urchins, worms, crustaceans, sea spiders and coral that live in the waters near South Georgia Island.
Scientists believe the area is a hot spot in part because nutrients and larvae flow in on ocean currents from Antarctica and South America.
Yet just as scientists are beginning to understand the richness of South Georgia's flora and fauna, they are warning that it is threatened by climate change and ocean acidification.
Surface waters near the island, which lies 1,300 miles east of South America and 1,000 miles north of Antarctica, are 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in winter and 4.1 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in summer than they were 80 years ago.
"Near-surface waters around South Georgia [are] some of the fastest warming on Earth," the new study says. "Furthermore, model projections suggest that over the coming decades that South Georgia will experience increased stress from ocean-wide acidification."
That is of special concern, Hogg said, because a large proportion of the species he and his colleagues identified in the new study are found only near South Georgia, including 46 percent of mollusks and 24 percent of crustaceans.
"We have a large portion of endemic species, many of which perhaps we haven't looked into properly yet. If we lose them from South Georgia, we lose that biodiversity for the whole planet," he said. "You never know what a species can bring to science."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500