Researchers find life forms beneath Antarctica ice shelf

Hemani Sheth Mumbai | Updated on February 16, 2021

An iceberg floating near Lemaire Channel, Antarctica (file photo)   -  Reuters

Accidental discovery made while drilling through 900 m of ice during an exploratory survey

Researchers have discovered life forms that exist far underneath the ice shelves of the Antarctic.

The findings have been published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

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“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,” said biogeographer and lead author, Dr Huw Griffiths of the British Antarctic Survey.

“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?” added Griffiths

The accidental discovery was made during an exploratory survey where researchers drilled through 900 m of ice in the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf, situated on the South-Eastern Weddell Sea.

While drilling through ice to collect sediment samples, they hit a rock instead of mud at the bottom. Video footage showed a large boulder covered in strange creatures.

“At a distance of 260 km away from the open ocean, under complete darkness and with temperatures of -2.2 °C, very few animals have ever been observed in these conditions,” read an official press release from BAS.

“But this study is the first to discover the existence of stationary animals – like sponges and potentially several previously unknown species – attached to a boulder on the seafloor,” it added.

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Away from water, sunlight

Dr James Smith, a geologist at BAS who was part of the drilling team, 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.”

Floating ice shelves are one of the most unexplored habitats in the Southern Ocean. As per current theories, very few forms of life can survive in such conditions, away from water and sunlight. Previous theories have stated that primarily “filter feeding organisms — which depend on a supply of food from above — were expected to be amongst the first to disappear further under the ice,” BAS said in its release.

“This is the first-ever record of a hard substrate (i.e. a boulder) community deep beneath an ice shelf and it appears to go against all previous theories of what types of life could survive there,” it said.

Based on the water currents in the region, researchers estimate the community of creatures to be 1,500 km upstream from the closest source of photosynthesis.

They will need to collect samples of these organisms to know more about them, a significant challenge in itself.

“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 900 m of ice, 260 km away from the ships where our labs are,” said Griffiths. “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.”

The researchers further noted that it will become increasingly difficult to study and protect these ecosystems owing to the impact of climate change.

Published on February 16, 2021

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