Mysterious animals found under Antarctica’s ice shelves

16 Feb 2021

British Antarctic Survey camera travelling down the 900-meter-long bore hole in the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf. Image: Dr Huw Griffiths/British Antarctic Survey

Researchers have discovered the existence of stationary animals that have been able to adapt to a frozen world.

In a fortunate accident, researchers have potentially discovered several previously unknown species during an exploratory survey underneath the ice shelves of the Antarctic.

In a study published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, researchers reported the discovery of a number of stationary animals similar to sponges and other species attached to a boulder on the sea floor.

The exploratory survey saw researchers drill through 900 metres of ice in the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf, situated in the south-eastern Weddell Sea.

Out here, very few animals have ever been observed, due to its distance away from the open ocean and with temperatures of minus 2.2 degrees Celsius under complete darkness.

Past studies have found that some small mobile scavengers and predators, such as fish, worms, jellyfish or krill, could survive under these conditions.

However, it has been believed that filter-feeding organisms, which depend on a supply of food from above, would be unlikely to appear further under these ice shelves.

‘Amazingly adapted’

The team of geologists were drilling through the ice to collect sediment samples and were surprised to come across rock instead of mud at the bottom of the ocean, only to discover a large boulder covered in strange creatures.

Dr Huw Griffiths of the British Antarctic Survey and lead author of the research said the discovery is “one of those fortunate accidents”.

“[It] shows us that Antarctic marine life is incredibly special and amazingly adapted to a frozen world,” he said.

“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?”

Griffiths added that in order to answer these questions, the team will have to get a closer look at the animals and their environment. “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.”

Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

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