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Seafloor creatures destroyed by ice action during ice ages

The ice ages made massive changes to the Earth's landscape. But what was happening below the ice in the oceans?

Research by marine scientists reveals that it was a time of mass destruction as whole communities of animals were wiped out by ice sheets scouring the sea floor.

In the past it has been thought that these ecosystems somehow dodged extinction by recolonising from nearby habitats that escaped obliteration. But researchers at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (NOC) and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) reveal a bleaker scenario.

Dr Sven Thatje, an ecologist at NOC has been working with geoscientists, Dr Claus-Dieter Hillenbrand and Dr Rob Larter at BAS examining one of the harshest environments on Earth - the Antarctic seafloor.

Writing in the October issue of Trends in Ecology & Evolution the scientists provide new evidence that suggests that seafloor organisms were either erased by the advance of ice sheets across the Antarctic continental shelf or starved to death as links in the food chain were broken by the permanent ice cover. There would have been no refuge for shallower living animals further down the continental slope, as huge sediment slides would have buried them. Typically these ecosystems would have been made up of sponges, urchins, sea fan corals, and starfish.

Dr Thatje said: 'We show that during ice ages seafloor organisms emigrated to the deep sea - below the effects of the sediment slides and ice. From there, organisms may have invaded open marine shelters of the Antarctic shelf, which were not affected by the advance of ice masses. Or these animals may have recolonised the Antarctic shelf from the deep-sea during the warm period following each ice age.

'Either way it is an impressive feat against the odds as the extreme cold means that these animals respond much more slowly
'"/>

Contact: Kim Marshall-Brown
kxm@noc.soton.ac.uk
44-23-80-596-170
British Antarctic Survey
17-Oct-2005


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