Falkland Islands' Intertidal Zones: Insights into Sub-Antarctic Biodiversity and Climate Change

By Dr Narissa Bax, Dr Quentin Jossart and Dr Emma Beaton


This project is part of a broader effort to study and understand intertidal zones across the Southern Ocean (Antarctic and sub-Antarctic). The Falkland Islands' ecosystems are unique due to the presence of relatively undisturbed habitats, and their location at the convergence of multiple oceanic currents. These factors contribute to a diverse range of habitats supporting a wealth of marine life, making the Falklands a critical area for studying and conserving marine biodiversity across the sub-Antarctic region. The project aims to contribute to our understanding of the impacts of climate change on these ecosystems, identify potential vulnerabilities and threats, and inform conservation efforts across the region. This will be done through the collection and analysis of a wide range of specimens from various groups (e.g., molluscs, crustaceans, sea stars, fish). These specimens will provide insights into the species composition, distribution, and abundance within intertidal zones, as well as their physiological and behavioral characteristics. Molecular techniques, such as DNA barcoding and eDNA analysis, will be used to better characterize these intertidal organisms. Connectivity between populations will be also evaluated for key target groups. This integrative approach will provide valuable data for biodiversity assessment, monitoring, and conservation efforts. This is of much importance as intertidal zones are changing rapidly due to climate change and human activities. In such context, this project will obtain a biodiversity baseline for sub-Antarctic biodiversity and community structure that could serve as a reference to document any future change in the composition and structure of intertidal communities.

 Exploring the Biodiversity of Falkland Islands Intertidal Zones

 The Falkland Islands are home to unique ecosystems with relatively undisturbed habitats and the convergence of multiple oceanic currents, resulting in a diverse array of environments teeming with marine life. These fragile ecosystems are increasingly susceptible to the effects of ocean warming, pollution, and other human-induced stressors. Consequently, the Falklands represent a crucial area for studying and conserving marine biodiversity in the sub-Antarctic region while also providing exceptional opportunities for local environmental education and engagement.

Image: Nudibranch (possibly Dialulula punctuolata) on a bed of coraline algae (Corallina sp.) and Spirobinae spiralled tube worms ©Stephanie Carter

Intertidal zones are coastal areas that are underwater at high tide and exposed to air at low tide. It is home for some emblematic Falklands’ species (penguins, seals) as well as a wide diversity of marine invertebrates such as molluscs, crustaceans, sponges or sea stars. Considering their emergence at low tide, the intertidal is one of the most accessible environments to explore, allowing individuals of all ages to connect with nature and develop an understanding of the importance of conservation.


Dr. Jossart's research project, titled “Biogeography and Resilience of Intertidal Southern Ocean Communities”, aims to study the unique biodiversity within the intertidal zones, evaluate the relationship existing among different regions of the Southern Ocean and contribute to conservation efforts. This project complements existing work led by Dr. Bax on environmental (eDNA) beyond the intertidal zones in kelp forests in the Falkland Islands.

Image: Nick Pitaluga leading the way to the best intertidal locations at Salvador © Narissa Bax, SAERI

By examining various specimens, the project will enhance our understanding of marine ecosystems' health and functioning, helping to identify potential vulnerabilities to environmental changes. Researchers employ standardised protocols to collect specimens in the field, followed by detailed morphological and genetic analyses. DNA research techniques, such as DNA barcoding, play a critical role to better characterize the species of investigation. It can also help to uncover hidden genetic distinctions among seemingly similar organisms. This work is essential for uncovering the hidden wonders of Southern Ocean intertidal zones, deepening our knowledge of these ecosystems, informing conservation strategies, and emphasizing climate change challenges.

Disseminating these results to young Falkland Islanders is also crucial. Dr. Jossart's outreach efforts during his short two-week visit to the Falklands included a presentation on the intertidal and sea stars at the Falkland Islands Junior School, inspiring curiosity and appreciation for local ecosystems. The accessibility of intertidal ecosystems makes them ideal for environmental education and engagement, nurturing environmentally conscious individuals who understand the value of protecting these delicate ecosystems.

Dr. Jossart's research was also featured on FITV, with a short interview available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a__6jOHE4HI

Image: Beautiful field site near Cape Bougainville, Salvador at low tide, East Falklands © Narissa Bax, SAERI
Image: Quentin Jossart holding a sea star (Odontaster validus) at a sampling site near Cochon Island © Narissa Bax, SAERI
Image: Quentin Jossart and Dan Sadd at Salvador © Narissa Bax, SAERI
Image: Quadrats delineate sample areas for study, as demonstrated in this image from New Island, highlighting mussels, limpets, barnacles, and algae on the rocky shore ©Narissa Bax
Image: Quentin Jossart and Tim Mean undertaking dusk sampling at the scenic location of Hell's Kitchen, Murrell Farm ©Narissa Bax, SAERI


We are grateful to the EU Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship and to the Fonds Léopold III for funding Dr. Jossart's research in collaboration with Dr. Bax at SAERI (supported by the John Ellerman Foundation), the Université de Bourgogne, and the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Special thanks go to SAERI volunteers Dan Sadd, Tim Mean and Augustin Clessin as well as PhD student Rhian Taylor, for their invaluable assistance in sampling various locations. We appreciate Jenni Sol and Tim Stenning at Falklands Conservation for facilitating sampling on New Island, and we acknowledge Dr. Beaton's pioneering work on intertidal research in the Falkland Islands, which laid the groundwork for our exploration of locations such as Cape Pembroke, Mare Harbour, and Surf Bay. We express our gratitude to the Pitaluga and Lowe families for granting access to their land and to the officers at Mare Harbour military site for their assistance. Lastly, we sincerely thank the local community for their continued engagement and for valuing the importance of understanding and protecting these unique ecosystems.

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Ross Road, Falkland Islands
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