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Who wants to live in the coldest, windiest, driest place on earth? Penguins, seals, whales, and a handful of sea birds, of course. Fish, most notably cod and icefish, also swim the surrounding seas. Hard to believe, but Antarctica is teeming with hearty wildlife.
These animals are specially adapted to Antarctica’s harsh environment. Aside from the wingless midge – the largest land animal (albeit insect) at 12 mm in size – and some mini invertebrates, most Antarctic creatures depend on the sea for survival.
TRIP TRIVIA: If some misguided travel agent tries to sell you a polar bear excursion to Antarctica, sell them your beach house at the North Pole. Polar bears live in the Arctic, not the Antarctic. The Arctic is North, and Antarctica is South.
Plant life in the Antarctic region mostly consists of mosses (bryophytes), lichens, algae and fungi, with a rare species or two of flowering plants on the Peninsula. Because there isn’t enough plant life to sustain a vegetarian, the animals mostly eat each other.
The Antarctic food chain is fairly simple. Antarctic krill is the keystone species of the ecosystem, which means that nearly everyone else eats it. Krill is a tiny shrimp-like invertebrate that lives in large, claustrophobic swarms of up to 10,000 to 30,000 individuals per cubic meter. Whales, penguins, seals, squids, fish, albatross and many other sea birds all eat krill, and krill eat even smaller phytoplankton.
TRIP TRIVIA: What gives the snow that attractive pink color reminiscent of an Antarctic twilight? Drift a little closer and you smell the powerful aroma of penguin guano. The pink cast comes from a heavy load of krill in the penguins’ diet.
Want more gruesome details? Leopard seals also prey on penguins and other seals and sometimes on the tubes on Zodiac rafts. Who eats the leopard seals? Orcas, if they’re around. Orcas eat everybody except for humans (usually), who made them disappear near South Georgia due to over-hunting in the early whaling days.
Blubber and feathers. Insulation is extremely important.
The longer answer is that warm-blooded animals (birds and mammals) in Antarctica maintain constant internal body temperatures, just like warm-blooded animals do in other climate zones. If they let their internal temperatures drop below freezing, they’d become penguin popsicles.
Also: Size matters. Technically speaking, a bigger bird has a smaller surface area to volume ratio, which means it has less relative area through which to lose heat. Most of the warm-blooded animals in Antarctica are over-sized because big animals of the same shape stay warmer.
Penguins have their own special social adaptation… they huddle. They gather together with friends and family while constantly moving, so that the warm guys in the middle rotate to the outside and the colder folks take a turn in the center.
Homo sapiens are flocking to Antarctica in greater numbers every year. To help minimize our impact on the wildlife populations and habitat, the powers that be created many treaties and acts and other agreements.
The Antarctic Treaty System is the big one. This treaty and its many agreements managed to demilitarize, denuclearize, and scientificize (a made up word to stand for: established it as a scientific research mecca) the region.
The 1980 Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is part of the Antarctic Treaty System. Its objective is to conserve the marine life of the Southern Ocean while not excluding harvesting, and while considering the effects of such activities on the entire Antarctic ecosystem.
In 1978, the United States passed the Antarctic Conservation Act in 1978, designed to protect mammals, birds, plants and their ecosystems.
Despite these and other attempts to regulate and protect Antarctica’s natural resources, illegal fishing practices still threaten species like the Patagonian toothfish.
TRIP TRIVIA: The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) is a form of self-regulation for the tourist industry.
Besides protecting the environment and conducting scientific study, what’s the other vital role humans play in Antarctica? They entertain the full-time animal inhabitants with their many antics. Antarctica is truly where the wild things live – and sometimes visit.