Researchers find unique biodiversity of species in Antarctica but say more needs to be done to protect it.

For decades, scientists had little inkling that Antarctica, one of the bleakest places on the planet, was home to an abundance of colourful creatures ranging from giant spiders to bizarre, ice-loving sea anemones.

But recent research efforts and modern technology have revealed tens of thousands of new creatures we never knew could even survive on the vast, frozen continent.

This dramatic change in understanding has made it clear to scientists that Antarctica holds an important, unique and wide-ranging biodiversity of species.

A new review, published in the major journal Nature today, calls for greater efforts to preserve these organisms while we still can.

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"Most people think there are just penguins, seals and whales down there, and that's about it - but we've discovered the amount of life down there is much greater than we thought," said Waikato University microbial ecologist Professor Craig Cary, who co-authored the study.

The discovery of micro-organismal life living under glaciers was an example of a surprising discovery.

"How this unique biodiversity will respond to the globally changing climate is unknown."

Over the past 15 years, Professor Cary has helped uncover an abundance of tiny bacteria that live around different regions of Antarctica.

"For years, people didn't really think there were many micro-organisms there, but the revolution that came with new genetic tools enabled us to look at these life systems in a completely different way."

Not only were these organisms able to withstand some of the most extreme conditions on Earth, they appeared to be separated into different regions around the continent.

Other remarkable finds around, on and under the ice have included crabs, mites, nematodes and a species of sea anemone accidentally discovered by an underwater robotic vehicle probing the underside of the Ross Ice Shelf.

The study's authors noted several unusual ways in which patterns of biodiversity were produced in the region, with geothermal heated areas, such as volcanoes, playing an important role as refuges during past periods of extensive global glaciation.

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At sea, wind had an especially significant effect on diversity, with windier areas having more seabird species.

The researchers found that while conservation measures were excellent in some cases, much more work was needed to protect life there.

The area covered by special protection on land - the equivalent of national parks - and by marine protected areas at sea was still too small, they found, and comprehensive protection was particularly needed in the Ross Sea, considered one of the planet's last relatively intact marine ecosystems.

"Ultimately, the region will require a dedicated plan for biodiversity conservation, " said co-author Professor Melodie McGeoch, of Monash University in Australia. "We think there's plenty of appetite for developing it."

Cold facts

• The Antarctic has distinct biogeographic regions, each with different groups of species - it is not simply one homogeneous area.

• Terrestrial and marine diversity has relied on a variety of shelters, including geothermal refuges, while life has also persisted
sub-glacially.

• Antarctic micro-organismal systems can be among the most diverse globally, but also highly specialised to arid, low-nutrient conditions.

• There are good reasons to improve efforts to conserve biodiversity in the region.