Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica)

GenusDeschampsia (1)
SizeLength: 3 - 5 cm (2)

The Antarctic hair grass is yet to be classified by the IUCN.

A fine-leaved, perennial grass, the Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica) is one of only two flowering plant species living below latitudes of 60 degrees in the Antarctic (3). Its leaf blades are folded when young, then developing into long, dark green, erect stems, as with the rest of the family Deschampsia (4). It is visible along with the other vegetation on the Antarctic coast throughout the summer, which consists of mosses, lichens and the only other plant species, the Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis). Small clusters of the Antarctic hair grass can be seen among rocks and in soil-filled cracks in the bedrock, growing in low mats (5) (6).

The range of the Antarctic hair grass extends from maritime areas of the north-western Antarctic Peninsula and South Sandwich, South Orkney and South Shetland Islands, to latitudes of around 68 degrees south. It can also be found in southern South America and on Kerguelen Island and Heard Island (3) (6).

 In Antarctica, this species growth is restricted to warmer, coastal areas (2) (7). The Antarctic hair grass is not abundant in any areas, although rising temperatures are beginning to allow populations to move further inland onto the Antarctic Peninsula (2) (5) (8).

The coastal flats and lowlands of the Antarctic are extremely harsh environments, and the Antarctic hair grass therefore prefers sheltered areas next to mosses or crevices between rocks (2) (5) (6) (7) (9). The other flowering plant of Antarctica, the Antarctic pearlwort, also provides the Antarctic hair grass with shelter from climatic extremes (3).

 The soil in the Antarctic is acidic and damp, containing an abundance of dead roots, foliage and decaying moss. The soil is also shallow, rarely exceeding 20 centimetres in depth (2) (3) (9). The Antarctic hair grass is found in areas of the most highly developed soil, which occurs on sheltered, moist, level or north-facing slopes. It occasionally colonises areas in front of glaciers (8) (9).

The Antarctic hair grass is able to tolerate temperatures below zero degrees Celsius, at which point it is barely functioning; however, it is specially adapted to withstand such conditions. The Antarctic hair grass will freeze, but rather than forming large, harmful ice crystals, it will instead form small ones, preventing damage to its cells in times of extreme cold (5) (10) (11).

 The Antarctic hair grass is self-pollinating, with the flowers remaining closed and seeds forming in the warmer parts of its range during summer months (2) (12). The long growing season allows the seeds of the Antarctic hair grass time to mature, so that they can germinate and become established before the beginning of winter (8).

The simple terrestrial Antarctic ecosystem is extremely vulnerable to the introduction of non-indigenous plant species by human actions, such as tourism. These exotic species previously would not have been able to establish in such hostile conditions; however, with temperatures increasing they may be introduced successfully. Invasive species may potentially outcompete native species for resources and therefore can be a danger to native populations (11) (13). Spores of other plant species may also travel to the Antarctic naturally by wind or birds, and the spores can then become trapped in the ice, later being transferred to the soil and germinating as conditions become more favourable (11).

The Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella) is responsible for trampling and manuring of the Antarctic hair grass, destroying extensive populations in coastal areas (14).

Lynch Island has been designated a ‘Special Protection Area’ (SPA) because the island supports an extensive area of Antarctic hair grass (14). The Antarctic region is protected under the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which protects the area from intentional non-native plant introduction (11).

Find out more about conservation work in this area:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. ITIS (October, 2011)
  2. Stonehouse, B. (2002) Encyclopedia of Antarctica and the Southern Oceans. Wiley-Blackwell, New Jersey.
  3. Hince, B. (2000) The Antarctic Dictionary: A Complete Guide to Antarctic English. Csiro Publishing, Victoria, Australia.
  4. Peeters, A. (2004) Wild and Sown Grasses. Blackwell Publishing, Rome.
  5. McGonigal, D. (2009) Antarctica: Secrets of the Southern Continent. Frances Lincoln, London.
  6. Soper, T. (2008) Antarctica: a Guide to the Wildlife. Bradt Travel Guides, Chalfont St Peter, UK.
  7. Sayre, A.P. (1998) Antarctica. Twenty-First Century Books, Connecticut.
  8. Sah, S.L. (2003) Encyclopaedia of Petroleum Science and Engineering, Volume 1. Gyan Publishing House, Delhi.
  9. Ross, R.M., Hofmann, E.E. and Quetin, L.B. (1996) Foundations for Ecological Research West of the Antarctic Peninsula. American Geophysical Union, Washington D.C.
  10. Xu, Z. and Li, J. (2008) Biotechnology and Sustainable Agriculture 2006 and Beyond. Springer, Dordrecht.
  11. O’Reilly, J.L. (2008) Policy and Practice in Antarctica. ProQuest, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
  12. Evans, E.C. and Butler C.A. (2010) Why Do Bees Buzz? Fascinating Answers to Questions about Bees. Rutgers University Press, Piscataway, New Jersey.
  13. Hall, C.M. and Saarinen, J. (2009) Tourism and Change in Polar Regions: Climate, Environments and Experiences. Routledge, Oxon, UK.
  14. Lewis-Smith, R.I., Walton, D.W.H and Dingwall, P.R. (1994)Developing the Antarctic Protected Area System: Proceedings of the SCAR/IUCN Workshop on Protected Areas, Cambridge, U.K., 29 June - 2 July 1992. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.