Scientists who accidentally came across bizarre life forms on a boulder way beneath Antarctica’s ice shelves are surprised (and puzzled) by their incidental discovery.
The find, which was published in Frontiers in Marine Science on Monday, came about as researchers drilled through nearly 3,000 feet of ice in the southeastern Weddell Sea (the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf) when they saw creatures living in darkness, in subzero temperatures, “firmly attached to a rock.”
Antarctica has more than half a million square miles of ice shelves encircling it, with the Filchner-Ronne being one of the largest at more than 160,000 square miles.
The animals found were of the stationary variety. Specifically, they were sponges. But there’s also the potential that some found were previously unknown species. Anyway, more fascinating than the animals’ physical appearance is that they were able to survive under 3,000 feet of freaking ice without sunlight, and sustaining on whatever not-immediately-obvious-source-of-food they’re finding out there.
The creatures were found when a team of geologists were boring through ice to extract mud samples, though they were bummed (scientific term) when they hit a boulder that impeded their progress.
Let somebody who knows more about this subject, in this case marine biologist Huw Griffiths (who authored the study documenting the find) contextualize it for.
It was “a genuine surprise to see these animals there,” Griffiths said. “It’s about 160 kilometers further under the ice shelf than we had ever seen a sponge before.”
Due to the challenges presented by the physical terrain, the area under giant floating ice shelves remains one of the least documented habitats on the planet.
In order to see what’s beneath them, boreholes are drilled and cameras are lowered into the waters beneath. Griffiths says that the total area humans have seen below combines to be roughly the size of a single tennis court.
As for this find, the thing that makes it bizarre is the remote location, according to Griffiths. He adds that these types of organisms would usually thrive in an area with lots of food and sunlight.
Instead of finding sponges, in a more typical scenario, he would have expected to find mobile animals (like crabs, shrimp, crustaceans, etc.) that could actually go mobile to find food.
To survive the animals have to be eating floating material from other living material, animals or plants, that comes right to them. The boulder they were attached to sits about 150 miles away from the ocean and currents under the ice shelf hint that the closest plant life could be as many as 1,000 miles away, according to Griffiths.
“Somehow, some really specialized members of the filter-feeding community can survive,” he said, according to CNN. “They could be brand-new species or they could just be incredibly hardy version of what normally lives in Antarctica — we just don’t know. My guess would be that they are potentially a new species.
“If they are living somewhere as tough as this, they are probably specially adapted to being there. There is a good chance they might go weeks, months and years without food — you have to be pretty hardy to cope with that.”
In the larger picture he believes researchers have a chance to learn how these organisms are able to survive, and that (potentially) that knowledge can benefit medical, engineering or other scientific purposes.
As is always the case with these things, more research is necessary. That’s not a shock or a generic disclaimer, it’s just that better technology/ideas are necessary to get a closer look at the organisms.
“It’s this idea that there is a whole world that we know nothing about. The idea that there are lots more of these rocks down there. … That would constitute a huge habitat that we didn’t know existed,” Griffiths added.
“There are so many questions. There is life on Earth that isn’t playing by the rules that biologists understand.”