The coldest, driest, windiest continent on Earth – Antarctica – seems an unlikely place to find plants. But they’re there – you just might not recognise them when you see them.

The Antarctic peninsula has a different climate from the continent itself – it’s warmer and it rains sometimes – and it’s here that you will find flowering plants: two species of grass.

The rest of Antarctica is covered by a huge mantle of ice, apart from exposed rocky areas near the Ross Sea that make up about 0.4 percent of the total land area. This is where you can find a surprisingly large number of plant species – mosses, algae and lichens. Their distribution is being studied as part of the Latitudinal Gradient Project. This is an international research project that is looking at changes in species numbers as you go further south, and which environmental factors affect plant distribution. Some of the scientists are investigating whether the plants have special adaptations allowing them to survive in Antarctica’s extreme conditions – as part of this, they sent lichens into space with a Russian unmanned flight in 2005! (The lichens survived.)

The number of species does vary. On the Antarctic mainland, there are 20–50 different lichens and from 2–15 species of moss. The number of species and the species themselves differ from site to site. There are far more plant species on the peninsula – 88–300 lichens and 20–90 mosses – with the larger number of species at the peninsula’s northern end.

How do these organisms survive the freezing Antarctic conditions? This has been the focus of ongoing research by Allan Green and his international collaborators. They’ve found that, during the winter, the plants dehydrate and enter a state of dormancy. When temperatures improve and when water is available, they rehydrate and are able to photosynthesise – something that may be possible for only a few days in the year

    Published 4 September 2008