Turquets octopusBy Tamera Jones
4 May 2012

Scientists have long been concerned that the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet could collapse if global temperatures keep climbing. If it did, sea levels are predicted to rise by as much as five metres.

Now, genetic evidence from an Antarctic octopus reveals that this may have happened at some point in the not-too-distant past – possibly as recently as 200,000 years ago.

This suggests that scientists' concerns about the state of today's ice sheet could well be justified.

An international team of researchers analysed the genes of the Turquet's octopus, which lives in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica. During the Census of Antarctic Marine Life, which ran from 2005 to 2010, and International Polar Year, teams of scientists collected Turquet's octopuses from all around the continent.

'We were able to take advantage of much larger sample sizes than had been collected from Antarctica before. This presented us with a unique opportunity,' explains Dr Jan Strugnell from La Trobe University, lead author of the study, published in Molecular Ecology.

Adult Turquet's octopuses only move to escape from predators. This means they tend to stay put and don't travel very much at all. So the researchers expected octopuses from different regions of Antarctica to be genetically quite dissimilar.

But to their surprise, they found that the genes from octopuses taken from the Weddell and Ross Seas, on the opposite sides of Antarctica, were startlingly similar.

'The Ross and Weddell Seas are completely separate: they're about 10,000 kilometres apart,' says Strugnell. 'So we expected the genetics of these octopuses to be quite different.'

When the climate was much warmer, sea levels would have been substantially higher, because less water would've been locked up as ice. In this situation, the Ross and Weddell Seas could have been connected.

'Ocean currents would have both facilitated and hindered the flow of genes. But the Antarctic Circumpolar Current almost certainly wouldn't have facilitated so much dispersal by octopuses that two populations have almost identical genetics,' Strugnell says.

'So, we think this would only have happened if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet had collapsed.' […]

Antarctic octopus tells story of ice-sheet collapse



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