There is no native human population in Antarctica, nor are there any large land animals. Few species are adapted to the antarctic environment, but individuals of these few species are numberless. Life that depends completely on the land is limited to microscopic life in summer meltwater ponds, tiny wingless insects living in patches of moss and lichens, and two types of flowering plants (both in the Antarctic Peninsula). Birds and seals that spend part of their time on land (e.g., emperor and Adélie penguins and the brown skua—the most southerly bird and a notorious predator—and Weddell, crabeater, and Ross seals) are dependent on the surrounding sea for food. Antarctic waters are rich in plankton, which serves as food for krill, small shrimplike crustaceans that are the principal food of baleen whales, crabeater seals, Adélie penguins, and several kinds of fish.
Fur and elephant seals, which spend the summers on islands north of lat. 65°S were the basis for 19th-century commercial activity in Antarctica. In the 20th cent., commercial interest shifted to baleen whales. Fur seals are recovering from the slaughter of the 19th cent., as are the elephant seals. Whaling has been declining since the peak year of 1930–31. In 1986 the International Whaling Commission imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling; the moratorium, however, has not been adhered to by all nations.
Sections in this article:
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.