Investigating the threat of non-native hitchhikers on kelp rafts to shallow Antarctic marine communities

Funding bodies: NERC, Panorama DTP, SAERI, University of Hull, John Creek Trust 
PhD affiliations: British Antarctic Survey, Energy and Environment Institute at University of Hull

Project overview

Kelps are found along 25% of coastlines, representing some of the world’s most productive habitats, especially at higher latitudes. They play a key role in maintaining biodiversity, habitat provisioning and ecosystem function. During disturbance events such as storms, kelp individuals can detach from the benthos, and form kelp rafts.

There are currently an estimated 70 million kelp rafts floating in the Southern Ocean, it is understood that these kelp rafts originate from the kelp forests across the sub-Antarctic and have the capacity to transport organisms over 10,000s of kilometres. Therefore, it is clear that kelp rafts have the potential to act as a substantial vector for maintaining population connectivity within the sub-Antarctic and Antarctic.

Very little is understood regarding the biodiversity of kelp plants within the Falkland Islands and therefore what is being transported on these rafts. Furthermore, with climate change it is thought that the permeability of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current is being altered, resulting in more kelp rafts arriving at Antarctic shores, as we know that kelp rafts can act as a vector supporting long distance dispersal of associated organisms it is also possible that they could transport non-native species to the previously ecological isolated Antarctic posing a threat to native biodiversity.

In order to assess the threat, it is vital we understand the risks posed, what species are associated with kelp in-situ, what species remain associated with kelp during rafting journeys, and finally of those species which are capable of withstanding the environmental conditions of Antarctica both now and under future warming scenarios.

Project Objectives

  • To conduct a baseline macrofaunal invertebrate biodiversity assessment of two kelp species, Durvillaea antarctica and Macrocystis pyrifera, in kelp forests around the Falkland Islands. This will be done by conducting scuba surveys and kelp plant collection for dissection in the laboratory.
  • Investigation in the behavioural responses of species associated with kelp to detachment from the rocky substrate and during the rafting journey to understand which species choose to remain associated and which choose to “abandon ship”.
  • Physiological assessment of species that remain associated with kelp rafts ability to withstand environmental conditions in journey to Antarctic shores both now and under IPCC warming scenarios.
  • Develop a risk assessment assessing the threat of non-native species to Antarctic to help inform local policy and protect biodiversity.
  • Contribute to the understanding of kelp forest ecosystem functioning within the Falkland Islands.

LYDIA BRACKWELL

Lead & Co Supervisors: Dr Cath Waller and Dr Huw Griffiths

Dates: 09/2023 - 05/2027
Lydia studied Marine Biology at Newcastle University where she discovered her passion for ecology. During an internship with The Conservation Collective she found her passion for ecology intertwine with an understanding of the importance of scientific research around marine ecology and effective policy development. She then followed this interest to study for a Marine Ecosystems and Governance master’s in research at Newcastle University. Her Research project focused on the detrital dynamics of three kelp species found in the Northeast of England to further understand detrital pathways and ultimately the kelps contribution to blue carbon.
Following on from her master’s she went to work with Kelp Blue in Namibia, as a marine researcher. Kelp blue farm the giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera, for the generation of bio stimulant, with the core goals of the company surrounding improving biodiversity and carbon storage. This opportunity highlighted to Lydia the importance of kelp as both a habitat and resource whilst also igniting a passion for scuba diving within kelp forests.
Lydia’s PhD offered an opportunity to further understand kelp and get involved in the development in policy generation to protect marine biodiversity in the face of climate change, combining her passions.

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