Polar Biology

, Volume 33, Issue 2, pp 193–202 | Cite as

DNA uncovers Antarctic nemertean biodiversity and exposes a decades-old cold case of asymmetric inventory

  • Andrew R. Mahon
  • Daniel J. Thornhill
  • Jon L. Norenburg
  • Kenneth M. Halanych
Original Paper


With threats to biodiversity posed by anthropogenic impacts and global climate change, characterization of existing flora and fauna is increasingly important, but continues to focus predominantly on easily studied taxa. In the Southern Ocean, levels of species richness remain relatively unexplored due to remoteness and difficulties of sampling the region. Nemerteans (proboscis worms; ribbon worms) are unusually abundant and occasionally conspicuous in the Antarctic region. Despite being routinely collected, difficulties in preserving voucher material, morphological limitations, and shortage of taxonomic expertise have hindered our understanding of nemertean diversity. To assess patterns of diversity, we examined a fragment of the mitochondrial 16S rRNA gene from larval and adult nemerteans (n = 192) from 53 sites along the western Antarctic Peninsula. We found 20 distinct lineages having an uncorrected genetic distance (p) greater than 5% to the nearest sister taxon or group, 19 of which have not been genetically characterized in previous studies. Additionally, the putatively dominant adult species in the region, Parborlasia corrugatus, was found to comprise only 4.3% of larvae sampled (n = 3 out of 69 samples from 12 locations). Of 47 nemertean species recorded from Antarctic waters, 20 are heteronemerteans and therefore could have a pelagic pilidium larval phase. These results suggest that Antarctic biodiversity is underestimated, and that unknown species of nemerteans await description from Southern Ocean waters.


Antarctica Biodiversity Cryptic species 16S Larvae 



We would like to thank R. S. Scheltema for his assistance in this work. Additionally, we thank H. W. Deitrich, S. J. Lockhart for sharing samples for this investigation and also to S. Santos for insightful discussions leading to this work. The Edison-Chouest Offshore crew, Raytheon personnel, and scientific participants of the ASRV Laurence M. Gould in the 2004 and 2006 Antarctic cruises (LMG 04-14 and LMG 06-05, respectively) are gratefully acknowledged for their help and logistical support. This work was supported by a National Science Foundation grants to R. S. Scheltema and K. M. Halanych (OPP-9910164, OPP-0338087, OPP-0338218), and to H. W. Detrich (OPP-0132032). This work is AU Marine Biology Program contribution number 56.

Supplementary material

300_2009_696_MOESM1_ESM.doc (330 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOC 330 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andrew R. Mahon
    • 1
    • 2
    • 5
  • Daniel J. Thornhill
    • 1
    • 3
  • Jon L. Norenburg
    • 4
  • Kenneth M. Halanych
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesAuburn UniversityAuburnUSA
  2. 2.Department of Biological Sciences, Center for Aquatic ConservationThe University of Notre DameNotre DameUSA
  3. 3.Department of BiologyBowdoin CollegeBrunswickUSA
  4. 4.Smithsonian InstitutionWashingtonUSA
  5. 5.Department of Biological Sciences, Center for Aquatic ConservationUniversity of Notre DameNotre DameUSA

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