Polar biodiversity research in a changing environment

The polar regions are facing rapid climatic changes, faster than any other region on Earth. The Antarctic Peninsula in the Southern Ocean is one of the most rapidly warming regions of the world, with an average increase in air temperature of 2–4°C since the 1950s.
The rise in ocean temperatures is causing variations in the regional sea-ice extent and the retreat and collapse of ice shelves. These environmental changes can have strong effects on living organisms. While shallow-water and shelf species are affected first, deep-sea organisms are also affected, albeit with some delay. For example, melting sea ice releases ice algae and increases the amount of light penetrating the water column, triggering phytoplankton blooms. Dead algae sink to the seafloor where they are consumed by deep-sea organisms. Ultimately, this increases the food availability of species inhabiting the seafloor (benthos). However, the effects on deep-sea life are still largely unknown.
Polar benthic species are particularly vulnerable to changing temperatures compared to organisms from other regions due to their special adaptations to extremely cold environments. In response to climatic changes, species may show different reactions:
They can adapt.
They can migrate to deeper waters or to other regions to find more favourable conditions either by expanding their distribution ranges or by shifting their ranges.
In the worst case, they might lose their habitats and finally become extinct.
As our knowledge about the deep-sea benthos is still very limited, many species might become extinct even before they are discovered. To predict the potential ecological impacts of climate change in the future, it is important to improve our knowledge of the composition and distribution of polar benthic communities and their interactions with abiotic environmental factors. We thus combine different methods, from sampling the remote areas to mass digitising the biodiversity data to open-access databases, and finally applying biodiversity informatics methods to uncover the knowledge gaps and biodiversity patterns.

Research objectives

  • Expanding the knowledge on benthic fauna assemblage structure, abundance and biodiversity in Polar Regions.
  • Digitising the biological data from the sampling to open-access databases addressing the knowledge gaps.
  • Assessing the environmental variables driving benthic fauna biodiversity and abundance from the above mentioned areas.
  • Estimating changes in the distribution of deep-sea species due to changing environmental conditions.


  • Sorting of sediment samples collected in Polar Regions, and identification of benthic fauna to species level using integrative morphological and molecular methods
  • Measurement and analysis of environmental variables from the sampling areas.
  • Data mining of benthic species from Polar Regions to be added to the existing dataset obtained during sampling campaigns.
  • Statistical analyses and modelling to assess the influence of environmental variables on benthic polar fauna and to predict the future consequences on its biodiversity and distribution.

Responsible person

Prof. Dr. Angelika Brandt, Head of Department Marine Zoology, Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum, Professor at the Goethe University in Frankfurt

Projects we participate in

(PS118) Larsen-C PEARL – The influence of Larsen-C ice-cover on macrobenthic peracarid crustacean assemblages on the Antarctic shelf

Comparisons of the Larsen-C assemblages with those from the seasonally ice-covered Filchner Trough and the ice free South Orkney Islands

On 12 July 2017, the Larsen-C Ice Shelf calved the largest iceberg originating from the Antarctic Peninsula ever recorded. The Larsen-C PEARL project aimed to investigate macrobenthic peracarid crustaceans that lived beneath the ice shelf and to compare their species diversity and composition with those living in the deep Weddell Sea. However, during the expedition PS118 it was not possible to reach the Larsen-C due to heavy ice conditions, therefore new scientific questions were addressed. These latter aimed to investigate the influence of sea ice and other environmental variables on benthic peracarids comparing areas characterised by different regimes of ice coverage.

IceAGE — Icelandic Animals: Genetics and Ecology

The international IceAge project was established to study marine invertebrate biodiversity in a multitude of habitats around Iceland – from cold water coral reefs, hydrothermal vents and ridges down to the abyssal plains. Located in the northernmost part of the North Atlantic and the Nordic Seas, the region around Iceland and the adjacent waters forms a boundary area whose fauna is particularly exposed to climate-related changes. In this project, a variety of tools and methods are used to study the different facets of Icelandic biodiversity along with the factors and processes that have been shaping it. To this end, classical taxonomic methods are combined with modern aspects of biodiversity research, in particular phylogeography (population genetics and DNA barcoding), as well ecological modelling.

Beneficial: Biogeography of the NW Pacific deep-sea fauna and their possible future invasions into the Arctic Ocean

The aim of the Beneficial project is to deliver a sound biogeographic baseline study of the NW Pacific area including our available data from the Sea of Japan, Sea of Okhotsk, Kuril-Kamchatka Trench (KKT), Aleutian Trench (AT), SW Bering Sea, and the NW Pacific open abyssal plain in addition to open-access data. We have digitised a mass amount of data to open portals and increased the seep-sea knowledge six times more in the NW Pacific. We have compiled a novel book on the biogeography of the NW Pacific faunas , we also provided information on highly abundant key species which might potentially invade the Arctic Ocean in future under decreasing sea-ice conditions. Thus our data will be “beneficial” for the assessment of state and quality of the Arctic marine ecosystem in a changing environment.

(SO293) AleutBIO – German Russian deep-sea biodiversity studies in the Aleutian Trench and the eastern Kuril-Kamtchatka Trench

Aim of the project is to study the systematic composition, species diversity, and biogeography and evolution of benthic fauna of all size classes (meio-, macro-, and megafauna) in the Bering Sea and the eastern Aleutian Trench. In addition, it is planned to compare samples collected in the eastern Aleutian Trench with those from the Kuril-Kamchatka Trench to study the connectivity between the two areas and compare their diversity and species composition. A variety of techniques are used to achieve these goals. For instance, molecular methods are used to investigate the phylogeography and phylogenesis of benthic species, while biogeochemical and microbiological analyses are used to characterise the study areas.