Environment Forum

On Antarctic safaris, remember to bring a microscope

January 13, 2009

Many people hope to come back from a wildlife safari with close-up pictures of lions or elephants – this picture below is my best attempt from a search for the largest land animals in Antarctica.

If you look hard you can see a reddish blob at the tip of the thumb — it’s Antarctica’s most aggressive land predator, an eight-legged mite known as Rhagidia.

Pete Convey, a biologist at the British Antarctic Survey (that’s his thumb), says that such tiny creatures evolved in Antarctica over tens of millions of years — they can freeze their bodies in winter in an extreme form of hibernation.

Penguins, seals and whales are the best known animals in Antarctica, but none live year-round on land, where the biggest creature is a flightless midge whose name is ”Belgica antarctica” and who’s about 0.5 cm long.

Global warming could mean problems for some of these tiny creatures if it keeps going — the Antarctic Peninsula where Pete showed us the creatures has warmed by about 3 Celsius (5.4 Fahrenheit) over the past 50 years, the fastest rate in the southern hemisphere.

Some other creatures might be able to survive in a warmer climate and threaten mites like Rhagidia.

Pete is a genius at finding the creatures — the second rock he picked up had one of these red mites on it…I picked up about 50 and found none.

Here is Pete on his hunt being filmed by my colleague Stuart McDill of Reuters TV: (for a text story, click here)

 

 And here’s a much better close-up of a monstrous Antarctic mite, related to Rhagidia:

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