A landmark study published in Nature Climate Change today by Australian and British scientists predicts that climate change will have a major impact on life in Antarctica this century.
Dr Paul Dennis of the School of Agriculture and Food Sciences at The University of Queensland said results indicated that by 2100 there would be 25 per cent more soil fungal "species" in the most rapidly warming parts of Antarctica.
"While this may bring certain ecological benefits, it may also help invasive species to gain a foothold in this pristine wilderness," he said.
"Our study was based on soil samples collected from Antarctica during an extensive survey led by Professor David Hopkins (Royal Agricultural University, UK) during International Polar Year 2007-2008."
The survey was the most extensive of its kind and involved complex logistics provided by the British Antarctic Survey and the UK's Royal Navy, including light aircraft, helicopters and ice breakers.
Dr Dennis, who now leads the Microbial Ecology Group at UQ's School of Agriculture and Food Sciences, said surface air temperatures in the maritime Antarctic had risen by up to 2.8ºC over the past 50 years, at rates several times that of the global average.
"Our research has demonstrated that in this rapidly warming part of Antarctica temperature is the main factor that determines soil fungal diversity," he said.
Dr Kevin Newsham of the British Antarctic Survey and the University Centre in Svalbard, and Dr Dennis are the lead authors of the study.
The researchers said that the majority of fungi were microscopic and may not be as charismatic as animals to the average person.
However, they had very important roles to play in soils as plant decomposers and as symbionts, closely associated with other organisms.
"With air temperatures in the Antarctic currently rising at the fastest rates in the Southern Hemisphere, it's likely the number of species of fungi present in these soils will increase," they said.
"Such increases are likely to positively influence important ecological processes such as the decomposition of plant remains, effectively kick-starting plant communities by the enhanced release of nutrients into the soil."
Sites in the northern maritime Antarctic are up to 10ºC warmer than those at the southern limit of the Antarctic Peninsula.
"By assessing fungal communities in the northern maritime Antarctic, we were able to make predictions about how soil fungi are likely respond to warming in colder regions," Dr Dennis said.
"Antarctica is like a natural laboratory in which to further understanding of our planet's response to environmental change."
Dr Dennis conducted the study with colleagues Dr Kevin Newsham (NERC British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge, UK; University Centre in Svalbard, Norway), Prof David Hopkins (Royal Agricultural University, Gloucestershire, UK), Dr Lilia Costa Carvalhais (UQ), Dr Peter Fretwell (NERC British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge, UK), Prof Steven Rushton (Newcastle University, UK), and Prof Anthony O'Donnell (University of Western Australia).
The paper, Relationship between soil fungal diversity and temperature in the maritime Antarctic is published in Nature Climate Change.