A team of British scientists were surprised to find life thousands of feet beneath the ice of Antarctica, in a sub-freezing environment where sunlight never reaches. The discovery happened during an exploratory mission at the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf when a team of geologists hit a rock instead of the ocean floor after drilling through 3,000 feet of ice.
Scientists discover life in Antarctica
“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,” said Dr. James Smith, a geologist at the British Antarctic Survey.
The find was recorded with a GoPro camera lowered into the hole. BAS researchers describe the organisms they found attached to the boulder as sponges and “potentially several previously unknown species.”
“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,” says biogeographer and lead author, Dr. Huw Griffiths of British Antarctic Survey.
Exploring the Arctic Ocean
Griffiths told the New Scientist that there are “all sorts of reasons they shouldn’t be there.” A looming question is how the organisms are feeding, since researchers calculate that the closest source of photosynthesis is more than 900 miles away.
Griffiths said the discovery has raised a number of questions: “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?”
His team will now have to find an innovative way to study the remote organisms. Griffith noted that with the collapse of ice shelves in Antarctica and the effects of climate change, time may be running out.