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OSLO (Reuters) - Tiny Antarctic marine creatures first collected by British explorer Robert Falcon Scott in 1901 may help scientists understand future climate change, a study showed on Tuesday.
The century-long record of the seabed-dwelling animals, known as bryozoans and looking like branching twigs on the seabed, also hints that an Antarctic sea has started to absorb more carbon in recent decades.
Growth by the bryozoans, collected in the Ross Sea by Scott in 1901 and 1911 and by other expeditions in the 20th century, showed a rapid rise since the 1990s after no previous trend, a British-led team of experts wrote in the journal Current Biology.
That extra growth meant that the bryozoans were absorbing more carbon, adding a piece to a scientific puzzle about whether industrial emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide to the atmosphere might be offset by the oceans.
"Scientists have found the first conclusive evidence of increased carbon uptake and storage by Antarctic marine life," the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) said in a statement.
"This is the longest study of growth at a very high latitude," lead author David Barnes of BAS told Reuters of the study which included scientists in Poland and the United States.
The scientists also examined bryozoans in museums in the United States, Britain and New Zealand to piece together a record of their growth in the Ross Sea in the 20th century.
Barnes said that the recent growth seemed linked to better availability of food but the study did not reach any conclusions about the underlying cause.
"We have not demonstrated that anything has driven this...It's not obviously a result of climate change," he said. "But we now have a baseline to look at lots of things -- such as changes in temperature, changes in acidity."
"This is only one species...the next thing to do is to work out whether this is representative of other types of animals. If it is, then a lot more carbon is being taken out," he said.
Scott is most remembered for his race to be the first to reach the South Pole -- Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen won in 1911 and Scott and his four men died on their return to the coast in January 1912.
Barnes said it was unfair to associate Scott most with a failure.
"Of all the early explorers and collections we may learn more from his two expeditions than we learnt from all the others," he said.