Desmarestia of Antarctica
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
Marine Botany



Index Taxonomy Life History Morphology Antarctica Acknowledgements

Cold, nutrient rich, low light environments characterize Polar Regions. Would you guess that the waters of the Arctic have similar flora as waters of the Antarctic? Even though these two locations have very similar temperature, nutrient, and light regimes, it turns out that seaweed communities of the Polar Regions are not so similar. In most cold-water ecosystems kelp (Laminariales) is the dominant seaweed - but there is no kelp in the waters of Antarctica. Uniquely, Desmarestialeans dominate the seaweed flora in Antarctica. Following the opening of the Drake Passage 35 million years ago, Antarctica’s ice sheets stabilized and the water temperatures of the Southern Ocean fell. It was only about 3 million years ago that ice sheets developed in the Northern Hemisphere. Thus marine algae in Antarctica have had a much longer history in a cold-water habitat than Arctic marine algae. For some helpful information about the cooling of the Southern Ocean see the Woods Hole magazine Oceanus.

It is hypothesized that the family Desmarestiaceae originated in the Southern Hemisphere and molecular phylogenetic analysis (Peters et al.) of nuclear ribosomal DNA from members of this family support this hypothesis. Desmarestia is a cold-water alga and can’t survive in warm waters near the equator. How then did this alga get from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere? One answer might rely on ice ages. Perhaps when temperatures fell and the equatorial waters were not as warm as they are now, certain species of Desmarestia may have taken this opportunity to "cross the border." However, comparisons of DNA (van Oppen et al.)show that individuals from the Arctic and Antarctic do not differ enough genetically to support the former hypothesis. In other words, should it be true that Desmarestia crossed the equator during the last ice age, than it is expected that the genetic sequence determined from the DNA of the individual from the Northern Hemisphere should be somewhat distinct from an individual of the Southern Hemisphere given the amount of time since the last ice age and the average speed of evolutionary change. Instead, the genetic information of the two species is surprisingly similar and suggests that the species found today in the North migrated fairly recently from the South. Perhaps the answer to this riddle lies in the Life History of Desmarestia. Since there is a small microthallic phase in the life cycle of this alga, then deep-water dispersal may be the answer.

pressing of algae from Antarctica

Three specimens of pressed Desmarestia that Dr. Chuck Amsler at the University of Alabama at Birmingham graciously lent to me so that I might examine one species (Desmarestia antarctica) that I certainly wont be able to find snorkeling in Monterey Bay! On the other hand, Desmarestia ligulata is a very common species in California and seems to have a worldwide distribution. Because D. ligulata can be found in the Southern Hemisphere and also in the Northern Hemisphere it is called an amphiequatorial alga. Additionally you may say that D. ligulata has an amphioceanic distribution because it occurs in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Index Taxonomy Life History Morphology Antarctica Acknowledgements

© 2005 Ashley Maloney

Last updated: Apr. 27, 2005