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Arctic crustaceans surviving without ice

Sept. 13, 2012 — With sea ice in the Arctic melting to record lows in summer months, marine animals living there face dramatic changes to their environment. Yet some crustaceans, previously thought to spend their entire lives on the underside of sea ice, were recently discovered to migrate deep underwater and follow ocean currents back to colder areas when ice disappears.

“Our findings provide a basic new understanding of the adaptations and biology of the ice-associated organisms within the Arctic Ocean,” said Mark Moline, director of the University of Delaware’s School of Marine Science and Policy in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment. “They also may ultimately change the perception of ice fauna as imminently threatened by the predicted disappearance of perennial sea ice.”

Moline, Jørgen Berge of the University of Tromsø and Norwegian colleagues found the crustaceans, specifically amphipods Apherusa glacialis that resemble small shrimp, well below sea ice during a rare winter, nighttime research expedition to the Fram Strait and Eurasian section of the Arctic Ocean. They determined that the crustaceans migrate downward as part of their life cycles and ride deep-ocean currents toward the North Pole.

The crustaceans’ travels appear to be an adaptive trait that both increases survival during ice-free periods and enables them to be retained in the Arctic Ocean.