An Ohio University researcher who netted four species of fish previously
unknown to science during a National Science Foundation (NSF) Antarctic research
cruise says the discoveries confirm his hypothesis that the continent's frigid
seas are a world-class evolutionary laboratory.
"Antarctica is under-appreciated as an evolutionary site," argues Joseph
Eastman, an anatomist who made his discoveries aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer,
an icebreaker of the NSF's polar research fleet. "The oceanic waters
surrounding the continent are a natural evolutionary laboratory comparable to
the Hawaiian Islands or Lake Baikal in Russia."
Eastman said his research indicates the waters appear to have been the
site of geologically recent "adaptive radiation" as a single stock of fish --
known as notothenioids -- evolved to fill ecological niches that unrelated
species would otherwise occupy. This is the only known example of an adaptive
radiation in marine fish, according to Eastman.
Fossil evidence indicates that a variety of different species occupied
ecological niches earlier in geological time, when Antarctic waters probably
were considerably warmer. But Eastman said that many scientists erroneously
assume that because the relatively shallow coastal waters around the southern
continent are now so cold, they also must be relatively barren and uninteresting
in an evolutionary sense.
The variety of species in the waters of the Antarctic shelf, which
typically are no more than 500 meters deep, differs sharply from similar, more
temperate waters, such as in the Delaware Bay. In those waters, Eastman noted,
there is a great diversity of species on the bottom and at different levels of
the water column.
In Antarctica, 95 species of notothenioids, all derived from
bottom-dwellers without swim bladders, dominate all habitats. Over evolutionary
time, some notothenioids have experienced an increase in body fat and are able
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Contact: Peter West
National Science Foundation
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