Scientists Accidentally Discover Remarkable New Life Underneath An Antarctic Ice Shelf
While performing an exploratory drill through the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf on the frozen South Weddell Sea - around 260 kilometres from the nearest open ocean - they found a load of animals, right where you wouldn't expect them to be.
There were some sponges, and some other creatures that were previously unknown to science, all clinging to a boulder sitting on the sea floor.
It's not yet known how they came to be there, and their survival appears to be something of a miracle, because many stationary animals that are forced to live without sunlight feed on matter called 'marine snow'.
That's a nice way of saying 'dead stuff that floats down to the bottom of the sea'.
However, much of that marine snow would have to travel a long way to reach them, and it would have to do it sideways, because they're underneath the ice shelf.
Dr Huw Griffiths, of the British Antarctic Survey and the lead author of the study in Frontiers in Marine Science that presented the findings, said: "This discovery is one of those fortunate accidents that pushes ideas in a different direction and shows us that Antarctic marine life is incredibly special and amazingly adapted to a frozen world.
"Our discovery raises so many more questions than it answers, such as - how did they get there?
"What are they eating? How long have they been there? How common are these boulders covered in life?
"Are these the same species as we see outside the ice shelf or are they new species? And what would happen to these communities if the ice shelf collapsed?"
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The floating ice shelves are probably the most unexplored habitat in the Southern Ocean, covering a vast amount of area underneath the Antarctic continental shelf.
Despite covering 1.5 million square kilometres, only an area equivalent to the size of a tennis court has ever been studied through eight boreholes in the ice.
The theory is that life becomes less abundant as you get further away from the power of the sun and open water. They've found things like fish, worms and krill, but it had been thought that filter feeding organisms such as these would find it tough down there, because of the lack of that aforementioned marine snow.
Strange then, that they would find them living on this rock on the sea floor so far from noticeable food source.
The plan had been to take a sample from the ocean floor - they drilled in precisely the wrong place for that, but the right place for discovering new life.
Dr James Smith, a geologist at BAS, said: "We were expecting to retrieve a sediment core from under the ice shelf, so it came as a bit of a surprise when we hit the boulder and saw from the video footage that there were animals living on it."
This unique discovery is the first of this kind and appears to question every theory that had gone before about the kinds of life that could survive in such an unhospitable environment.
Griffiths added: "To answer our questions we will have to find a way of getting up close with these animals and their environment - and that's under 900m of ice, 260km away from the ships where our labs are."
"This means that as polar scientists we are going to have to find new and innovative ways to study them and answer all the new questions we have."
Featured Image Credit: British Antarctic Survey
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