Wildlife of Antarctica

Antarctica’s wildlife is diverse and unique. It is the only continent on Earth which has no terrestrial mammals, but is home to a range of marine wildlife and birds, including penguins! The most common birds in Antarctica are penguins. It is home to 18 different species, including the Emperor Penguin.

Penguins playing on an ice floe in the waters surrounding Antarctica
Penguins on an ice floe. Photo credit: Belinda Vause

The Emperor Penguin

The Emperor Penguin is the largest of all penguin species, they can be up to 130cm tall, and on average weighs 23kg as an adult.

Emperor penguins in Antarctica
Emperor penguins. By Ian Duffy

Where do Emperor Penguins Live?

Emperor penguins, like all penguins in Antarctica, live in colonies dotted around the coastline. Emperor penguins are unique in having colonies on sea ice. Sea ice is frozen sea water which fringes the Antarctic continent. In the winter, the sea ice extent expands. In the summer, it shrinks as the sea ice melts. By the time the chicks are ready to fledge, the sea ice edge is close to the colony, so the young penguins don’t have to travel far to get their food.

There are so many penguin colonies around Antarctica that scientists are not able to count them when they visit. Instead, they use satellite data, which takes images from space. They are able to see locations of penguin colonies because of a reddish-brown mark on the ice which can be seen from space. This is known as penguin guano (penguin poo) – yes, you have read that right, penguin poo! Their poo is this distinctive colour because of the food they eat. Penguins live on a diet of fish, squid and krill. And it is krill which causes a penguins poo to be the distinct reddish-brown colour.

Krill is not only eaten by just penguins, it is a very important food source for many other species in Antarctica’s wildlife.

Antarctica’s Wildlife and its Food Web

The Antarctic food web is much shorter than most. Here in Antarctica there are only four main trophic levels shown in the figure below.

Antarctica's Food web
Simplified Illustration of Antarctica’s Food Chain

The producer in Antarctica are tiny organisms, known as phytoplankton. These organisms get their energy from the sunlight. Krill is then the main consumer of the phytoplankton, which is eaten by many other organisms such as penguins, birds, or even ginormous elephant seals! Because there are so many different organisms feeding from the krill, there needs to be lots and lots of krill available, especially as they are only 2 inches long! The top predator in Antarctica is the Orca/Killer Whale which feeds on many of Antarctica’s wildlife.

Image of Antarctic Krill swimming
Antarctic krill. By Øystein Paulsen – MAR-ECO, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=225249

Antarctica StoryMaps

This page includes a series of StoryMaps introducing #Antarctica. They are suitable for UK key stage 3 to GCSE (age ~14 to 16). There will be four storymaps:

These freely available resources were produced by an interdisciplinary team, including scientific experts (Bethan Davies, Huw Griffiths, Klaus Dodds, Peter Neff), technical experts from ESRI UK, and school teachers. They were produced by Laura Boyall and Jen Thornton. The project was funded by the Antarctic Science Bursary.

These four ESRI StoryMap Collections are aimed at KS3 students, and beginners who are interested in learning about Antarctica. They are supported by some introductory articles.

These StoryMap Collections are a great resource for home or in-classroom learning, building on skills in GIS and mapping and data analysis. By completing the series of activities throughout the StoryMaps, and interacting with the resources, you will finish with a clear understanding about some of the key topics in Antarctica!

Other storymaps that might be of interest are highlighted here.

An introduction to the physical geography of Antarctica

This StoryMap Collection introduces the physical geography of Antarctica. There are some basic GIS activities for students to help experiential learning, and some great imagery and videos.

This StoryMap introduces the different kinds of ice and physical geography of Antarctica.

The wildlife of Antarctica

This StoryMap collection introduces the wildlife of Antarctica and the Antarctic food web. Investigate Emporer Penguins and use GIS resources and satellite imagery to find their colonies. Learn about krill and how they are the basis of the Antarctic food chain!

It links to our Antarctic Wildlife article, and has a blank food web for students to complete.

This StoryMap collection focuses on Emperor Penguins and Krill. Can you find the penguin colonies from space?

Physical Geography of Antarctica

Antarctica is the 5th largest continent on Earth with up to 98% of it being covered with thick ice and snow.

Its unique position in the high latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere means that almost all of Antarctica has temperatures below freezing all year long. It also means that in winter it is in complete darkness for 24 hours a day. And in the summer months, the sun barely sets.

Sunset during a research trip from Halley VI Research Station.
Sunset during a research trip from Halley VI Research Station. Photo courtesy of Ian Hey.

Antarctica as a Continent

Unlike the Arctic in the Northern Hemisphere which is ice floating on water, Antarctica is a continent with bedrock under the thick ice sheet.

Scientists have used satellite data to produce maps to show what Antarctica is like beneath the ice. This has shown that the bedrock is made up of 5 large land masses with islands surrounding them.

BEDMAP 2 (BAS)

Antarctica’s Icy Features

Ice sheets

Antarctica hosts a range of fascinating icy features. It is one of only two places on Earth with an ice sheet. Ice sheets are large areas of thick ice, more than 50,000 km2.

An illustration of some of Antarctica’s icy features

Ice shelves

The coastline is fringed with a series of ice shelves which are floating extensions of land ice. These are important glacial features as they can ‘hold back’ the ice on the land. This helps to stop the land ice from flowing into the sea. Sometimes, these ice shelves can calve into icebergs which float around in the surrounding ocean.

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Glaciological structures in the floating Prince Gustav Ice Shelf, northern Antarctic Peninsula. Landsat 4 TM image from 1988.

Sea ice

There are also extensive stretches of sea ice (frozen sea water, detached from the land) surrounding Antarctica. Sea ice is used for a range of wildlife, including krill and Emperor Penguins. Sea ice changes seasonally, scientists are now showing that climate change is affecting the timing and extent of sea ice.

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Frozen first year sea ice around Rothera, Antarctic Peninsula. Large icebergs are also frozen into the sea ice.

Icebergs

Icebergs are the chunks of ice that have broken off (‘calved’) from the mainland glaciers and ice sheets and floated away into the ocean. You can see some icebergs floating in the water, surrounded by sea ice, in the photograph above.

Because ice is close to, but slightly less, dense than water, most of the iceberg’s mass is below water and only a little bit of it floats above the water. In fact, 9/10ths of the mass of the iceberg are below water!

You can draw your own iceberg here, and see how it would float:

Iceberger, by Josh Tauberer

The gallery below shows some of the beautiful and evocative icebergs from around Antarctica.

Seasons of Antarctica

Seasons are different all over the planet. You might be used to the four seasons – winter, spring, summer and autumn, or a wet season and a dry season. On the continent of Antarctica, there are only two seasons, winter and summer.

Rothera Research Station basking in the summer sun. Photo: Bethan Davies

In the southern hemisphere, where Antarctica is, summer and winter are at the opposite time of year to the northern hemisphere. Summer in Antarctica starts in October and ends in March, and winter starts in March and lasts until October.

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Goodbye summer sun! Sunset in Antarctic Sound, March 2012. Photo: Bethan Davies

Antarctic seasons change as Earth moves around the sun. Earth is a globe that spins around an axis. That axis is tilted. Because it is tilted, Antarctica and the south pole point towards the sun in summer and away from the sun in winter.

Earth’s orbit around the sun causes the seasons in Antarctica.

Daylight in an Antarctic Winter

When Antarctica is pointing towards the sun, in summer, there is sunlight all day long, and the sun does not set until the winter. This is often called Antarctic Day, with the Midnight Sun. You would be able to read a newspaper outside at midnight at the South Pole. If you’re camping in the Antarctic summer, it’s best to bring an eye mask!

In winter, it is dark all day long, and this is called Antarctic Night. Even at 12:00 noon, it will be pretty dark south of 80 degrees south. The sun may just peek above the horizon north of 80 degrees south.

Halley VI Research Station in Antarctic winter. The sun is just peeking above the horizon, but that’s as high as it will get until summer! Source: https://www.bas.ac.uk/media-post/midwinters-day-in-antarctica/

Temperatures in an Antarctic winter

Because the sun never rises, Antarctic winters are very cold. The average temperature across Antarctica during winter is -34.4°C. Even in summer, Antarctica is still really cold, with temperatures rarely above freezing (0°C), except at the coasts and extremities.

Even in summer, it’s still really cold! But not too cold for some recreational snowsports! Photo credit: Bethan Davies

Sea ice in the Antarctic Winter

In an Antarctic winter, it is so cold that the sea freezes, forming briney sea ice that surrounds the continent. In summer, most of the sea ice melts. The area of sea ice in winter is about six times as big as the area of sea ice in summer, with an average 3 million km2 in summer and 18 million km2 in winter.

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Icebergs caught in sea ice, viewed from the Twin Otter in early Summer, before the sea ice melts. Photo credit: Bethan Davies

At the end of summer, in March, the sea is warmest and the sea ice is smallest, called the sea ice minimum. At the end of winter, in September, the sea ice is biggest, known as the sea ice maximum.

Amount of sea ice in summer (March) and winter (September). Data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

People in an Antarctic winter

Antarctic seasons affect human and wildlife activity. Few people remain on Antarctica during the winter as it is cold and bad weather makes it difficult to get to and from research stations.

In summer, there is much more life on Antarctica, and melting sea ice means much more food available for fish, penguins and seals.

Dog sled racing to celebrate Midwinter’s Day on Antarctica… Except the dogs here are humans! Source: https://www.bas.ac.uk/media-post/midwinter-2018/

In Antarctica, some bases are occupied in the summer only. Others, such as Rothera and Halley, are occupied throughout the year. People that stay on Antarctica over winter are called winterers. They celebrate midwinter on 21st June, when Antarctica is furthest from the sun.

Traditional celebrations include games and sports such as an outdoor run or Winter Olympics, and a big meal together.

Once winter has come in Antarctica, it is very difficult to leave. Winterers must be entirely self sufficient, as evacuation from a winter base is very challenging. The base team will include doctors, engineers, carpenters, mechanics, chefs, and all kinds of skilled people who can keep the base running. Other people who might over-winter on a base include scientists, such as meteorologists or biologists.

Research bases around the Antarctic Peninsula. Of the British bases, Rothera is occupied all year around, but Fossil Bluff is occupied in the summer only.

Photographing Winter in Antarctica

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Dramatic skies at Rothera Research Station. Photo: Iain Rudkin https://www.iainrudkin.com/Polar-Life/

Check out loads more dramatic photos of all seasons in Antarctica from Iain Rudkin on his website! https://www.iainrudkin.com/Polar-Life/

The photogallery below shows photos from Ian Hey from his time at Halley Station over winter.

Introductory Antarctic Resources

This section of the website has a range of introductory articles. These are suitable for younger readers (up to 14 years; UK Key Stage 3) or those new to learning about Antarctica.

This video (24 minutes) introduces the Antarctic Ice Sheet, how to get to Antarctica, and what it’s like to live and work in Antarctica. It is suitable for primary-age children.

Introduction to Living and Working in Antarctica (24 mins)

You may also be interested in visiting our page on Introductory Resources for Teachers, which also targets the 14~16 age group (UK Key Stage 3 and GCSE).

This section of the website is sponsored by the Antarctic Science International Educational Bursary.

List of Introductory resources (UK key stage 3 and GCSE, ages 14+)

Introduction to Antarctica

This article acknowledges funding from the Antarctic Science Bursary

What is Antarctica?

At the far south of our planet, beyond the farthest tips of Patagonia, South Africa, and New Zealand, lies a big white land – Antarctica. It’s white because of the ice and snow that covers most of this huge continent. In fact, ice covers almost all of Antarctica – only 2% of the land surface is ice-free, and that is covered in snow most of the time! This ice is the Antarctic Ice Sheet, the biggest mass of ice on our planet.

Antarctica is a continent, surrounded by an ocean, which freezes with sea ice. This is different to the Arctic, which is entirely ocean, covered in sea ice, and surrounded by continents.

Antarctica. An orthographic projection of NASA’s Blue Marble data set (1 km resolution global satellite composite). “MODIS observations of polar sea ice were combined with observations of Antarctica made by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s AVHRR sensor—the Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer.” Image was generated using a custom C program for handling the Blue Marble files, with orthographic projection formulas. Source: Wikiemedia Commons

The image below shows the Arctic Ocean and the Antarctic region, and shows how the sea ice varies between the two poles. The sea ice grows each winter and shrinks each summer as it melts. The seasons are opposite in the two poles; it is summer in the Arctic and Northern Hemisphere when it is winter in the Antarctic.

Map of seasonal sea ice extents in the Arctic and Antarctic. From the NSIDC.

How big is Antarctica?

Antarctica is a huge continent! If all the ice in Antarctica were to melt, sea levels would rise by 57.9 metres.

The picture below shows how big Antarctica is when compared to the UK. Antarctica covers 14 million km2, and you could fit the whole of the United States within its borders!

This image shows the outline of Antarctica compared with the UK. The floating ice shelves have a blue outline.

The image below shows how large Antarctica is compared with the USA (image from NASA).

In this still image, Antarctica is shown using the Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica (LIMA) data with the continental United States overlaid on top for size comparison.

Ice sheets, ice shelves, icebergs and sea ice

The Antarctic Ice Sheet is so big that we split it up into two parts – the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. These ice sheets are on land, called grounded ice, and contain a huge volume of ice – around 60% of the all the fresh water on Earth!

A cartoon of an ice sheet feeding into an ice shelf, showing the grounding line (where the glacier begins to float).

At the edges of the ice sheets, the ice begins to float on sea water, called ice shelves. These ice shelves are important because they hold back ice in the ice sheet, stopping it from flowing and melting quickly. It’s so cold around the southern hemisphere that the sea is often frozen, which we call sea ice. This is different to the ice shelves because sea ice is thin, and not connected to the ice sheet.

This image of Antarctic sea ice is from the NASA Scientific Visualisation Studio, showing the Earth on September 21st 2005. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Sometimes, a part of the thick ice shelf breaks off and floats away, and it becomes an iceberg. This breaking away event is called calving.

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Huge icebergs can break away from ice shelves. They can be tracked by radar and satellite.

Antarctic wildlife

You might think Antarctica is too cold for wildlife. But Antarctica and its seas are teeming with life! The most famous residents are penguins, who live on the land and hunt for fish in the sea. There are mammals too, such as seals, and the seas surrounding Antarctica are rich in plankton, fish, and whales. Many birds live on or fly around Antarctica too, feeding in the sea that surrounds the continent.

Emperor penguins. By Ian Duffy from UK – Animal PortraitsUploaded by Snowmanradio, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9962254

People in Antarctica

Despite it being very cold all the time, some people live and work in Antarctica, but only temporarily. A lot of research happens on Antarctica, with scientists and engineers learning about the vast, icy continent, and developing technology that can cope with the cold climate. Because Antarctica is so remote, and has a unique and stunning landscape and wildlife, it attracts tourists from all over the world, who visit on ships to see the continent, or even climb and ski its mountains.

Bethan Davies doing scientific research on Glacier IJR45, Antarctica.

Comparing the Arctic and Antarctic

This lesson plan focuses on the differences between the Arctic and Antarctic. There are resources including videos, animation, printables and full lessons.

You can also download the lesson plan as PDF.

The Arctic and Antarctic. From Vaughan et al., 2013.

Resources for Teachers (Introductory)

This page lists Introductory resources for teachers. These polar resources are suitable for ages ~11-14 (UK key stage 3) and ages 15-16 years (UK GCSE). Introductory-level articles are highlighted with a yellow flash on the website.

See a list of Introductory articles here.

Other resources

The Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR) has a list of educational resources here.

There are a number of glaciated landscapes resources on the Time for Geography website.

Discovering Antarctica

Discovering Antarctica is an interactive website and resource developed by the British Antarctic Survey and the Royal Geographical Society. It has a host of features suitable for an introductory level to Antarctica (~11-14 years; UK key stage 3).

Discovering Antarctica

There is a number of resources, including ecosystems and food webs, science and exploration, tourism, challenges, and of course, introducing Antarctica. There are interactive activities designed for individual, group or pair work, many of which are in interactive multimedia format.

The website is not a scheme of work, but is a resource for teachers to dip into depending on their curriculum needs and priorities.

IceMap

Icemap is a cool visualisation that may be good for younger (11-14 years) students. Follow Lenny the Lemming on his journey through time, as the climate changes and the ice sheet evolves from 37,000 years ago to 8000 years ago.

Lenny the Lemming, 37,000 years ago

IceMap+ is an interactive reconstruction of the Last Eurasian Ice Age, and allows students to track the changes in climate and the ice sheet through time. The reconstruction is based on a numerical model that has been constrained by geomorphological data.

IceMap. An interactive visualisation of the last Eurasian Ice Sheet. Excellent introductory resource.