Chile shelters world’s best seaweed ‘biosphere’

Scientists off the coast of Tierra del Fuego discover a well-preserved treasure trove of biodiversity.

The frigid waters off the coast of southern Chile host the “best-preserved” examples of seaweed biodiversity in the world, according to Chilean biologists. Their research opens new doors for possible commercial uses, as well as a better understanding of the effects of global climate change.
Cabo de Hornos, on the austral tip of Chile’s Tierra del Fuego, faces the frozen expanses of the Antarctic Continent. These rocky shores comprise one of Chile’s several Biosphere Reserves, after UNESCO recognized the area for its rich biodiversity of mosses and lichens in 2005.
Researchers now believe that a similar wealth of seaweeds may exist in the frigid waters off the coast, where local scientists continue to discover new species of marine vegetation.
“We have come to realize that the Magallanes region is home to a very important diversity of seaweed, due to the kelp forests – which are underwater forests that preserve this diversity,” said Chilean biologist Andrés Mansilla, from the Universidad de Magallanes.
“In Chile, it isn’t widely known that the country’s southern zone is one of the best preserved ecosystems on the planet,” Mansilla said.
“We have even found some new species. And at this level, new scientific discoveries are something truly exciting,” Mansilla said. Thanks to support from the Chilean Scientific and Technology Development Fund (Fondecyt: Fondo Nacional de Desarrollo Científico y Technológico), Mansilla’s team is conducting studies on sub-Antarctic seaweeds along the Chilean coastline between Chiloé and Antarctica, as well as in Argentina and New Zealand.
And apart from the possible advances in industry and science, Mansilla said that seaweed is an important source of information for understanding global climate change, since marine plants are more sensitive to changes than those on land.
Mansilla pointed to the increasing levels of ultraviolet radiation and the weakening ozone layer each spring and summer. “Some seaweed varieties adapt, and through these adaptations, we measure what happens to their pigments during photosynthesis, or if they synthesize other substances as photoprotection,” Mansilla said.
“Seaweed allows us to see what is happening to the planet: if there is no seaweed, there are no sea urchins, and there’s an entire chain of consequences,” he added.