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Evolution in the cold

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 May 2004

Andrew Clarke
British Antarctic Survey
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Theodosius Dobzhansky once remarked that nothing in biology makes sense other than in the light of evolution, thereby emphasising the central role of evolutionary studies in providing the theoretical context for all of biology. It is perhaps surprising then that evolutionary biology has played such a small role to date in Antarctic science. This is particularly so when it is recognised that the polar regions provide us with an unrivalled laboratory within which to undertake evolutionary studies. The Antarctic exhibits one of the classic examples of a resistance adaptation (antifreeze peptides and glycopeptides, first described from Antarctic fish), and provides textbook examples of adaptive radiations (for example amphipod crustaceans and notothenioid fish). The land is still largely in the grip of major glaciation, and the once rich terrestrial floras and faunas of Cenozoic Gondwana are now highly depauperate and confined to relatively small patches of habitat, often extremely isolated from other such patches. Unlike the Arctic, where organisms are returning to newly deglaciated land from refugia on the continental landmasses to the south, recolonization of Antarctica has had to take place by the dispersal of propagules over vast distances. Antarctica thus offers an insight into the evolutionary responses of terrestrial floras and faunas to extreme climatic change unrivalled in the world. The sea forms a strong contrast to the land in that here the impact of climate appears to have been less severe, at least in as much as few elements of the fauna show convincing signs of having been completely eradicated.

Guest editorial
© Antarctic Science Ltd 2000