University of Wisconsin-Madison

Antarctic Animals

Antarctica — home to ice, penguins, and ... what else ? It's hard to picture a creature that could not only live but actually thrive in such a harsh and inhospitable environment. Yet many animals besides the famous black and white bird can be found in the seas and on the icy grounds of Antarctica. Fish, seals, and krill are just a few that have made Antarctica their home, enduring winds up to 320 km/h (199 mph) and surviving the continent that contains the largest desert in the world.

Cormorant. <br />Photo by:  G. Grant/NSF
Cormorant.
Photo by: G. Grant/NSF

There are approximately 200 species of fish in Antarctica waters. Of these, approximatley120 are notothenioids, a class of fish that contains glycoproteins in its blood. The glycoproteins attach to small ice crystals in the fish's body and work as an anti-freeze, enabling the fish to live in waters with temperatures as low as 28°F. These proteins appeared in fish 5–14 million years ago as a genetic mutation. Since the waters were warmer back then, the mutation had no inherent advantage. However, when the continental plates shifted and what is now Antarctica broke off from South America, the Antarctic seas became increasingly colder and the fish without the genetic mutation died out. Today, all remaining notothenioid, such as the naked-head toothfish and rakery beaconlamp, carry the glycoproteins.

Antarctic Cod. <br />Photo by:  M. Conner/NSF
Antarctic Cod.
Photo by: M. Conner/NSF


  • The Naked-Head Toothfish is around 100 cm (39.5 inches) in length. It has a depth range of approximately 550 m (1,800 feet). They predominately reside in the Ross and Antarctic Polar Front South seas.
  • The Rakery Beaconlamp is small, only 16 cm (6.3 inches) in length on average, though they have an enormous depth range: 60–1,000 m (197–3,281 feet). They are found in the South Atlantic as well as the Falkland area.
  • Warming's Lantern Fish swim in depths up to 1,500 meters (4,921 feet). These fish love zooplankton, though many have herbivore tendencies. While found in South Africa's southern waters and the Indian Ocean, older fish will migrate to other places.
  • The Antarctic Dragonfish is another deep-sea swimmer–—though only 20 cm (8 inches) in length, they can swim to depths of up to 1,800 meters (5.905 feet) in the Southern Ocean and the Scotia Sea island waters.
Weddell Seal. <br />Photo by:  O. Ganel/NSF
Weddell Seal.
Photo by: O. Ganel/NSF

Sixty percent of the world’s seal population resides in Antarctica. Seal fur was all the rage for women's fashion in the 1800s, and it was for this reason, as hunters searched the world for fur seals, that people first came to Antarctica. There are two families in Antarctica—the true and the eared. Fur seals are the only eared seals—seals with detectable ear flaps—living in Antarctica.

Fur seals grow to be about 7 feet and 250-pounds. They live on the coastal beaches of the Southern polar islands, and eat krill, squid, and fish found offshore. They dive to about 100 meters to retrieve their dinner, and can remain underwater for five minutes at a time. Fur seals are one of the most agile of their kind when walking on land; their fore-flippers can support most of their weight. The males weigh up to 450 pounds, almost twice as much as their female counterparts, and they have a silvery-gray coating. Females are all gray except for their chests, which are an off-white hue. Only one in 800 fur seals are completely "blonde." Seals are beautiful creatures with a cantankerous attitude. They find all visitors invasive and will not hesitate to instigate a fight, particularly during mating season. Very territorial, male fur seals compete for the best location to attract the best mate.

Proboscis Worm. <br />Photo by:  H. Kaiser/NSF
Proboscis Worm.
Photo by: H. Kaiser/NSF

Other sea creatures include animals as big as whales and as small as krill. Antarctic krill, though only 6 cm in size, are crucial in the Antarctic food chain. They clean up the sea by feeding in groups of thousands on phytoplankton, algae, and diatoms. They are then eaten by many others creatures—they a favorite meal for whales (a baleen whale can eat tons per day), seals, and birds. The Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources regulates the amount of krill fishermen can capture. What krill the fishermen do catch are taken from their shell immediately; after three hours out of water, the krill will no longer be edible due to fluoride leaching contamination. They are then sold in many different varieties, all of which have an appearance similar to that of a pink sponge.

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