Life finds a way, even at the bottom of the cold Antarctic Sea. However, the organisms at the bottom of the Antarctic might be in danger from foreign invaders.
A study published in Marine Drugs on August 24 found that the Antarctic benthic organisms aren’t equipped to deal with climate change and invasive species. Contxita Avila, a Marine Biological Laboratory Whitman Fellow at the University of Barcelona, led the research.
Benthic organisms live at the bottom of the sea in the benthic zone (as their names suggest). Their defense mechanism, which consists of releasing toxic chemicals, is enough to ward off predators. However, Avila worried that the chemicals might not affect foreign species from warmer climates.
Her team tested the defensive abilities of 29 Antarctic benthic organisms against amphipods and hermit crabs, both from the Mediterranean. Then, they added the chemicals to food fed to the predators and observed how they reacted.
While most of the benthic organisms repel the amphipods, only two out of the 29 were able to deter hermit crabs. This is likely because cold-water amphipods are already present in the Antarctic ecosystem, but hermit crabs aren’t.
King crabs are a recent invader of the Antarctic Sea due to climate changes and warming water temperatures in the south, and prior research suggests that hermit crabs have similar diets and ways of hunting as king crabs. This worried Avila and her team because the findings indicated that king crab invaders could decimate the local benthic population.
The Antarctic Sea floor is home to a diverse ecosystem that scientists know less about than the creatures in warmer waters. However, previous research on warmer water organisms showed that the chemicals released by these creatures could provide the base for therapeutic drugs. Some sponges even release compounds with potential anticancer activity.
Avila wants to continue her research about the Antarctic sea floor, even setting up a research station on the southernmost continent solely studying the floor. There’s a potential to lose valuable species that haven’t even been discovered yet, and with quickly warming seas, Avila is eager to start.