Patterns, processes and vulnerability of Southern Ocean benthos: a decadal leap in knowledge and understanding
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In the Southern Ocean, that is areas south of the Polar Front, long-term oceanographic cooling, geographic separation, development of isolating current and wind systems, tectonic drift and fluctuation of ice sheets amongst others have resulted in a highly endemic benthic fauna, which is generally adapted to the long-lasting, relatively stable environmental conditions. The Southern Ocean benthic ecosystem has been subject to minimal direct anthropogenic impact (compared to elsewhere) and thus presents unique opportunities to study biodiversity and its responses to environmental change. Since the beginning of the century, research under the Census of Marine Life and International Polar Year initiatives, as well as Scientific Committee of Antarctic Research biology programmes, have considerably advanced our understanding of the Southern Ocean benthos. In this paper, we evaluate recent progress in Southern Ocean benthic research and identify priorities for future research. Intense efforts to sample and describe the benthic fauna, coupled with coordination of information in global databases, have greatly enhanced understanding of the biodiversity and biogeography of the region. Some habitats, such as chemosynthetic systems, have been sampled for the first time, while application of new technologies and methods are yielding new insights into ecosystem structure and function. These advances have also highlighted important research gaps, notably the likely consequences of climate change. In a time of potentially pivotal environmental change, one of the greatest challenges is to balance conservation with increasing demands on the Southern Ocean’s natural resources and services. In this context, the characterization of Southern Ocean biodiversity is an urgent priority requiring timely and accurate species identifications, application of standardized sampling and reporting procedures, as well as cooperation between disciplines and nations.