Creatures of Antarctica
The south pole is largely oceanic, thus only 2% of the continent is in fact land, with ice constituting the remaining 98%. The ecology of the Antarctic, for this reason is rich in sea life. This is particularly true in the area of the North Antarctic convergence, where the ice-cold waters of the Antarctic ocean meets the warmer seas of the South Atlantic and South Pacific.The islands are therefore less harsh than the mainland itself. The vegetation that dominates these islands are thus grasslands, which in turn encourages bird life. However the continent itself paints a different picture.

Antarctic environmental law

Upon the recommendation of those who signed the Antarctic treaty, the environmental law took effect 11-11-1982. The purpose of this law is to ensure the protection of the fauna and flora of the Antarctic. Made up of 11 articles opening with Article 1 stating the purpose, the Law stipulates the following matters:

- restriction of conducts such as capture, killing and wounding of the Antarctic mammals and birds, as well as the bringing fauna and flora in the Antarctic region, entrance to the special protection zone, extraction of plants growing in the special protection zone, exemption from application, etc.

Article 1 states that "the purpose of this Law is to stipulate the necessary matters to implement the measures recommended by the meeting of the parties to the Antarctic Treaty for the preservation of fauna and flora in the Antarctic region, or  "recommended measures", pursuant to the provisions under Article 9 (1) of the Treaty, taking into account the importance to preserve the fauna and flora in the Antarctic region."

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Life cycle & food chain
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The above illustration depicts the general breakdown of the Antarctic food chain. As one can see the balance in this chain is very delicate as everything is dependant on more than one facet. The inter-linking of the Antarctic food chain, is one of fascination among scientists, as in such a harsh region, scientists need to establish the weight that each and every link carries to maintain the chain.
Flora of Antarctica
Antarctica is not close to any regions or landmasses that have vegetation, as in the Arctic circle, the Antarctic is practically barren in flora terms. Only two higher order or vascular plants have been discovered, namely: a strain of grass,Deschampsia Antarctica, and pearlwort, Colobanthus quitensis. Beyond these two higher order species, Antarctica is 'dominated' by mosses, lichens, and liverworts.
Although there are in fact 150 species discovered, the flora of Antarctica colonises as with the bird life. This heightens their chances of survival, often matting where the elements are less harsh.  Lichen & mosses on the rocks

These plants also display phenomenal survival strategies. When the temperatures approach winter lows, the plants reduce their water content, thus increasing the salt and sugar concentration in their sap. This counteracts the freezing, and allows the plant to lie dormant through the winter seasons.

Phytoplankton, microscopic food Importantly the phytoplankton in the Antarctic region is particularly high. Although not a higher order plant, phytoplankton does play an enormous role in the sea life, as very little to no sea plants survive the ice-cold waters.
The excessively high concentration of nitrates, produced by the guano of the bird colonies, also facilitates these strains of plant life. Some can even 'tick-over' in temperatures as low as -20ºC.

Fauna of Antarctica

Antarctic Birds Most of the bird species live on the pack ice, namely: penguins, petrels, terns, cormorants, skua, and the albatross.
PENGUINS: The fossils discovered that belonged to penguins a million years ago, reveal that the penguins have adapted by losing height and body weight. Some fossils found indicate that penguins used to stand over 2 meters tall.
Male Emporer penguins & their babies The Emperor penguin is most certainly one of the most beautiful birds, with it's regal air and fantastic colouring. More importantly, the male rears the young.
They balance the egg on their feet to keep it off the cold floor, and huddle the egg in a false pouch at the bottom of their stomachs. The males are so protective of these eggs, that should one get away, the 'eggless' males will fight over whose going to look after it next.
Rockhopper penguins nesting The Rockhopper penguin has distinctive feathers around the eyes, one could call them elaborate eyelashes. King penguins are also predominant in the Antarctic.   These penguins are also a large bird, along the lines of the Emperor penguin.
PETRELS: Petrels live in the belt that sailor's tenderly term the roaring forties, and Furious Fifties. Their beak has has well developed and distinct circular shape to the nostril. Scientists are still debating the function of the nostrils shape. Petrels squabbling over food
Some lean towards the external evidence of a superior sense of smell, the other school leaning towards a speed indicator, which may hold true in these two belts of high wind factors. The snow petrel is the only all white petrel in the world.
Delicate Tern feeding on fish TERNS: The Antarctic terns habitat a 100 kilometres inland. Carbon dating of their guano, places their inhabitation of this far inland to over 7000 years ago. Many believe that the rise of land from the ocean is the cause of this. These birds lay up to three eggs between October and January, rearing their young between March and May.
CORMORANTS: Blue-eyed cormorants are a fairly large bird where the has a wing span of 1.1m.  Blue-eyed cormorants breed on the Antarctic Peninsula. As is common with cormorants, they lay two to three eggs in October through to early January, and these hatch in November to February, or the summer months. These birds can dive up to 100 metres to feed on fish.
SKUA: The skua is a predatory bird, and eats fellow feathered friends. Unusually these birds do not display the characteristic paternal instincts of most other birds. During severe weather conditions, especially heavy snow that blocks nest entrances, the adults have been known to abandon their eggs or chicks to starve. Egg mortality is about 50% and chick mortality is 10-15%.
Adult Albatross crossing the cold ocean ALBATROSS: The Albatross favours the grassy areas at the Antarctic convergence, however they are found fishing in the pack ice. With a wing span of three meters, the Albatross boasts being the largest flying bird.
When the Albatross has young, they produce a pungent oil, that is effective as defence. Not only is the odour remarkably effective, but its oily composition renders preying birds flightless for some time.
Antarctic Mammals With the temperatures below freezing the most predominant mammals in the Antarctic include seals and whales. 
Whales migrate through the Antarctic in search of plankton, and krill. Krill is a small organism that flourish in the Antarctic region.   Krill, the whales main source of food
Although whales can be seen in this region at various times throughout the year, they are migratory. Thus I will be brief on this topic as it is the animals that reside on Antarctica that I wish to address.
The gigantic Blue whales that frequent this region, because the krill, plankton and fish population are enormous in this region. The Blue whale has been recorded at a whopping 30 meters in length, and weighing up to 150 metric tons.
Humpback whale 'crashing out' Other whales that frequent the cold waters include the Humpback whale, famous for its singing capabilities, the Southern Right whales, Fin whales, Mink and Sei Whales, Southern Bottlenose whale, Sperm whales, and the ever popular Killer whale.
Antarctic mammals are physically adapted to retain heat, with small appendages ensuring less surface area for heat loss, and a thick layer of blubber. Ironically it is this layer of blubber that almost caused the extinction of several whale species.
Whaling in this area has dramatically effected the populations of these whales. Although whaling has lost it's lustre, the numbers are only just beginning to recover. Exceedingly productive Whaling depot
Blubber on an animal in such harsh conditions ranges from a few centimetres thick in seals, to over a half a meter thick in whales. It would surprise you to know that the blubber is so effective in whales, that a whale often risks overheating when hunting.
The large colonies of seals however, are more in contact with the humans. The most predominant seal species in the Antarctic include: Weddell seals, Ross seals, Crabeater seals, Leopard seals, and the Antarctic fur seals.
Weddel seals riding out the weather WEDDELL SEALS: The Weddell seals bear their pups in September and October, in temperatures as low as -20ºC!! The pups are weaned in six weeks or so. 
Although seal pups double their weight in the first six weeks, the Weddell pups need to grow dramatically, as the average Weddell seal weighs 400 kilograms. In addition to this the Weddell seal has been recorded to fish at a depth of 200 meters.
The Weddell seals are the southern most species. In the thick ice flows, these seals depend largely on blow holes in the ice. They maintain these holes with their teeth and their lives.  Weddel seal surfacing through an ice hole
This is what their territorial disputes centre on, protecting their blow holes. It is also assumed that the blow holes are located by ultrasonic clicks, moans and groans, rendering the Weddell seal as one of the most vocal species.
ROSS SEALS: The Ross seals are smaller than the Weddell seals, reaching an average of 2 metres in length and 200 kilograms. Little is known about this particular seal, as they live very close to the pack ice away from the mainland, making research a difficult task.
Sullen looking Crabeater seal CRABEATER SEAL: Much the same can be said as with the Ross seals, as the Crabeater seal favours pack ice. The Crabeater seal is similar in weight and length to the Weddell seal.
In recent aerial surveys, researchers have discovered that these seals may possibly be monogamous, as groups existed in bull-plus-cow-plus-pup units.
LEOPARD SEALS: These are the last of the true seals. This seal is large at 3 meters in length and 350 kilograms. However, this seal favours the ocean and far out pack ice.  for this reason, the Leopard seal is more sinuous and muscular. The Leopard seal is famous for the fact that in the winter months they will pray on their own. Leopard seal displaying it's teeth
Adorable baby Fur seal FUR SEALS: The fur seal occurs mostly at the Antarctic convergence. The bull seal is approximately twice the size of the female sex. Fur seals are notorious for their territorial nature. The male will viscously defend his harem of 4 to 5 females. The Fur seal was commercially hunted for their pelts. With a luxurious coat of 2  to 3 centimetres thick, the seals were killed at a rate of 320,000 pelts annually.

Lisa Asselbergs
Copyright © 1999 [lisa asselbergs]. All rights reserved.
Revised: November 28, 2002.