A hot water drilling rig in Antarctica. Photo: Sophie Berger, AWI
Antarctica is often portrayed as a barren wasteland of ice and snow inhospitable as any place on earth. But a team of researchers has just extracted an enormous amount of life from beneath the frozen continent, a testament to the tenacity of these extremophile organisms.
Life was found about 200 meters below the Ekström Ice Shelf, in waters of 28 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-2 degrees Celsius) and pitch black. Seventy-seven different species of mossy animals called bryozoans and worms were found, a veritable plethora of creatures that are changing the way researchers think about these extreme undersea environments. The team’s research was: published this week in Current Biology.
“This has greatly increased the known species from this least known habitat,” David Barnes, a marine ecologist with the British Antarctic Survey, said in an email. While some of the animals had already been found in other parts of Antarctica, the unusual habitat for this cache is a first. “This may give us clues as to how life in the Arctic seas survived ice ages,” Barnes added.
The area is difficult to access, because it lies under hundreds of meters of solid ice. To really see what lives below, the research team drilled a hole through the ice using a specialized hot-water drill. Then the team dropped cameras into the borehole. They also radiocarbon dated some of the bryozoans and bivalves they found, to see how long life had been there.
“The radiocarbon dating of dead fragments of these seafloor animals ranged from the current to 5,800 years,” study co-author Gerhard Kuhn, an earth scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, said in a British Antarctic Survey. release. “So, despite living 3-9 kilometers [2-6 miles] from the nearest open water, an oasis of life may have existed under the ice shelf for nearly 6,000 uninterrupted years.”
Some of the bryozoans the team found. Photo: Dave Barnes, BASI
Enduring life in such extreme circumstances is impressive. Some regions beneath the Antarctic ice have life, despite having been in complete darkness for millennia. some microbes exist on pulverized rock that settles in the sediment beneath the continent. But even larger organisms manage to survive under unimaginably challenging conditions; another team of biologists found sponges half a mile (1 kilometer) below the Antarctic ice sheet, a discovery one of the researchers likened to “finding a patch of rainforest in the middle of the Sahara.” While the recent team’s discovery wasn’t that deep, it still expands the number of environments known to support life.
“There are many things we can learn from this unusual (and quite large) habitat,” Barnes said. “Many polar species can cope with much lower food levels than thought (so even though the polar oceans are warming at the surface, they may be able to survive in deeper (nutrient-poor) waters.”
Despite how inaccessible the habitat is, it changes with the rest of the planet. As climate change warms the planet and the collapse of the Antarctic ice shelves, these inland pitch-black habitats could soon be exposed to the open ocean or altered in other ways. Even if those changes could make some locations happier homes for sun-loving photosynthesizing creatures, the unique environment that currently exists beneath the Ekström Ice Shelf will be gone.
So far, only about 10 square feet (1 square meters) of the 620,000-square-mile (1.6 million square kilometers) of habitat has actually been observed, leading to fears that some of the biodiversity beneath Antarctica could face anonymity. “It’s a great tragedy that one of Earth’s least known, disturbed and unique habitats could be lost before we know it,” Barnes said. “There are probably many socially important answers to how our planet functions there.”
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