In the Southern Ocean, the Antarctic Coastal and Shelf Ecosystem (ACSE) constitutes the most complex and productive ecosystem, the richest in biodiversity, and presumably the most sensitive to global environmental change. To improve our understanding of the structure and dynamics of the ACSE, SCAR has scheduled the "Ecology of the Antarctic Sea-Ice Zone" (SCAR EASIZ) programme. Particular attention is paid to features that make the biology of this ice-dominated ecosystem so distinctive, and to understanding seasonal, inter-annual, and long-term changes (SCAR 1994).
In this framework, in order to accurately assess the biodiversity of the Southern Ocean and its role in the ACSE from the global change perspective, it seems obvious that more taxonomical expertise and tools are needed, especially for highly diverse and taxonomically difficult groups.
In the quasi-absence of decapods in the Antarctic seas, the peracarid crustaceans (Mysidacea, Amphipoda, Isopoda, Tanaidacea, Cumacea) constitute by far the most speciose group and probably the most diversified in terms of life styles, trophic types, habitats and size spectra.
The most numerous, the amphipods, comprise more than 820 species in the whole Southern Ocean (see the checklist elaborated by C. De Broyer & K. Jazdzewski), of which more than 710 are benthic species. They are ubiquitous in the Southern Ocean and have successfully occupied very diverse benthic habitats, the water column and the undersurface of the sea ice, as well as various symbiotic habitats. They feed on all possible foods (from phytoplankton to cetacean carcasses), and they offer a main trophic resource to a number of Antarctic bottom and demersal fishes, bottom invertebrates, squids, pinnipeds and seabirds.
It was suggested that this high specific diversity could be related to a high heterogeneity of habitats and a variety of ecological roles which remain to be described and understood.
An Antarctic Marine Biodiversity Reference Centre, devoted to amphipod crustaceans, is under development at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Brussels, Belgium. This centre includes specialised databases that record and organise the widely scattered information on taxonomy, geographic and bathymetric distribution, ecological and biological characteristics, and bibliography.
It will host and develop extensive, and validated reference collections of Southern Ocean amphipod crustaceans, compiled from Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences collections and other contributions from diverse national and international Antarctic programmes.
The centre will contribute to the development, by the "Antartic Amphipodologist Network",
of new conventional and computer-assisted identification tools (Amphipod volumes in the series "Synopses of the
Antarctic Benthos") and a multimedia electronic monograph.
These new tools would contribute to a better knowledge of the biodiversity of the Southern Ocean amphipod crustaceans and of its spatial and temporal variability.
The centre will also promote international collaboration and cooperative work in Antarctic marine biodiversity studies. A first step in this way take place in the framework of the Belgian-Polish cooperation with the development of the "Admiralty Bay Benthos Biodiversity Database".
The project is supported by the Belgian Federal Office for Scientific, Technical and Cultural Affairs under the Belgian Scientific Research Program on the Antarctic (Phase IV).