On December 14th 1911, humans set foot on the South Pole for the first time. Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his team reached their goal, just 5 weeks before a British party, led by Robert Falcon Scott. To celebrate this achievement, we thought we would explore the awe inspiring Antarctic, and the creatures found in this icy land.
Amundsen and his team would have had to travel across the worlds coldest continent, the Antarctic, which is larger then Europe in size. Its astounding vastness would have made journeying across this freezing landscape perilous.
The emperor penguin is a truly Antarctic species, breeding on the continent. They reproduce during the harsh winter, with temperatures dropping as low as minus 60 degrees Celsius! After sucessfully mating, the female lays a single egg which is then transferred to the male’s feet to be kept warm. The females then leave until spring, leaving the males to incubate the eggs in the complete darkness of the Antarctic winter. In order to survive, the males huddle together for warmth, with up to 5,000 penguins forming one huddle in large colonies. These persistent penguins really are made for endurance!
As one of the most abundant organisms in the Antarctic waters, Antarctic krill plays a key role in the food chain as the main prey for a wide variety of predators. These crucial species are estimated to have a population with a total mass of between 100 and 500 million tonnes! However, in recent years their abundance has seriously declined due to over-fishing and increasing temperatures from climate change. A decline in such a keystone species could have severe knock on effects on some of its many predator species.
Sea ice seals
The Weddell seal is the most southerly breeding of all mammals, and is an ice habitat specialist, breeding and giving birth on the sea ice in spring. The female will stay with the pup for the first few weeks, until it is weaned at around seven weeks old, after which it is left to fend for itself. This seal species is an accomplished diver, being able to reach depths of up to 600 metres!
The majestic wandering albatross breeds on sub-Antarctic Islands such as South Georgia. This impressive species has the largest wingspan of any bird, reaching up to a huge 3.5 metres, and spends the majority of its life in flight. They are long-lived birds, reaching sexual maturity at 9-11 years, and will pair for life! Now that’s romance.
The Southern Ocean around Antarctica is also home to many species of whale, including the incredible orca, or aptly named killer whale. It is the only species of cetacean to routinely hunt marine mammals, including seals, sea lions and dolphins. An intelligent predator, the orca employs a range of hunting techniques, often using coordinated attacks and other group hunting techniques, such as famously creating waves to wash prey off sea ice.
Explore more of this icy continent with our Antarctic eco-region pages, and tell us what your favourite Antarctic species is.
Rebecca Taylor, ARKive Media Researcher