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The Environment of Antarctica is arguably one of the most pristine in the world. Many species of flora and fauna are endemic to the continent, however, there are also many species introduced by the various waves of human settlement.
Antarctica is divided into four ecological zones.
The coastal strip stretches for as much as two km inland from the seafront. Characterised by rock beaches and rock pools, the strip is the main terrestrial habitat of the amphibious Antarctic species; such as the penguins, seals and sealions.
The rocky beaches gradually give way to the Antarctic Tundra. Resembling a mix between the Patagonian plains and Macquarie Island, it is the home of most of the terrestrial fauna of Antarctica.
The more northern reaches of the continent; The Antarctic Peninsula and outlying islands, are forested and are home to many species of animal.
The Antarctic continent is home to many species of animals found nowhere else in the world.
Many species of seals and sealions live on the rocky beaches of Antarctica. They spend large amounts of time in the ocean, hunting for fish. They come ashore to sleep, mate, and raise their young. They were hunted for food by the Antarctic Indigenous peoples, but it was the coming of European sealers in the 19th century which threatened the survival of the animals. With the introduction of electricity in the late 19th century, the demand for seal oil declined, saving them from almost certain extinction.
Almost all of Antarctica's current terrestrial mammals were brought, both purposefully and accidentally, by the Antarctic Indigenous peoples when they migrated from Tierre del Fuego. The most obvious example is the Llama, which were brought by the Aborigines as a source of food. They soon went feral, spreading through the forests and tundra. They are all members of the Lama glama antarctis subspecies. The Tuco-Tuco, a small rodent, was brought by accident in the bottoms of the Antarctican's boats. Ctenomys antarctis, or the Antarctic Tuco-Tuco is descended from these stowaways.
The penguins, although not the largest, fastest or most beautiful of the Austral Aves, nonetheless symbolise all things Antarctic. Being ocean-hunting birds, they spend their entire terrestrial lives on the coat, building rock nests along the shores of the Southern Ocean. They range greatly in size; the smallest species being only forty cm tall, and the tallest, as high as a human.
Animals introduced by European settlers have had a devastating effect on the Antarctic environment. Rats and mice were among the first to be introduced; arriving in the hulls of ships. Rabbits were introduced by wealthy settlers, who wanted to engage in some rabbit hunting. Ten rabbits were released and their current population is estimated at three million. Cats were introduced to deal with the rats, mice and rabbits, but they, too, went feral and have been blamed for the near-extinction of many native species.