Polar Biology

, Volume 28, Issue 10, pp 733–755 | Cite as

Recent research on Arctic benthos: common notions need to be revised

  • Dieter Piepenburg


Increased public awareness of the global significance of polar regions and opening of the Russian Arctic to foreign researchers have led to a pronounced intensification of benthic research in Arctic seas. The wealth of information gathered in these efforts has markedly enhanced our knowledge on the Arctic benthos. While some scientific concepts have been corroborated by the novel findings (e.g., low endemism and high faunistic affinity to northern Atlantic assemblages), other common notions need to be revised, particularly with regard to the often-cited differences between Arctic seas and the Southern Ocean. It has been demonstrated that benthos assemblages vary broadly in diversity between Arctic regions and that, hence, the idea of a consistently poor Arctic benthos—being in stark contrast to the rich Antarctic bottom fauna—is an undue overgeneralization. In terms of biogeographic diversity, both Arctic and Antarctic waters seem to be characterized by intermediate species richness. Levels of disturbance—a major ecological agent known to heavily affect benthic diversity and community structure—have been assumed to be relatively high in the Arctic but exceptionally low in the Southern Ocean. The discovery of the great role of iceberg scouring in Antarctic shelf ecosystems, which has largely been overlooked in the past, calls for a reconsideration of this notion. The novel data clearly demonstrate that there are marked differences in geographical and environmental setting, impact of fluvial run-off, pelagic production regime, strength of pelago–benthic coupling and, hence, food supply to the benthos among the various Arctic seas, impeding the large-scale generalization of local and regional findings. Field evidence points to the great significance of meso-scale features in hydrography and ice cover (marginal ice zones, polynyas, and gyres) as ‘hot spots’ of tight pelago–benthic coupling and, hence, high benthic biomass. In contrast, the importance of terrigenic organic matter discharged to the Arctic seas through fluvial run-off as an additional food source for the benthos is still under debate. Studies on the partitioning of energy flow through benthic communities strongly suggest that megafauna has to be adequately considered in overall benthic energy budgets and models of carbon cycling, particularly in Arctic shelf systems dominated by abundant echinoderm populations. Much progress has been made in the scientific exploration of the deep ice-covered Arctic Ocean. There is now evidence that it is one order of magnitude more productive than previously thought. Therefore, the significance of shelf–basin interactions, i.e., the importance of excess organic carbon exported from productive shelves to the deep ocean, is still debated and, hence, a major topic of on-going research. Another high-priority theme of current/future projects are the ecological consequences of the rapid warming in the Arctic. Higher water temperatures, increased fluvial run-off and reduced ice cover will give rise to severe ecosystem changes, propagating through all trophic levels. It is hypothesized that there would be a shift in the relative importance of marine biota in the overall carbon and energy flux, ultimately resulting in a switch from a ‘sea-ice algae–benthos’ to a ‘phytoplankton–zooplankton’ dominance.


Arctic Ocean Particulate Organic Carbon Brittle Star Arctic Shelf Central Arctic Ocean 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I would like to thank Gotthilf Hempel (Kiel), Karen von Juterzenka (Kiel), Howard Feder (Fairbanks) and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive suggestions on the manuscript. Moreover, I gratefully acknowledge the input of all my colleagues who have helped with the development of the ideas presented in this essay.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur Mainz, c/o Institut für PolarökologieUniversität KielKielGermany

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