Unexpected Life Found Beneath Antarctica's Floating Ice Shelves

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British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientists accidentally stumbled upon a boulder ringed with marine organisms (Credit: Dr. Huw Griffiths/British Antarctic Survey)

Though it is not unusual to find marine animals thriving under the Antarctica seafloor, researchers had always assumed that all life would become less abundant farther away from open water and sunlight. However, the discovery of filter-feeding organisms — 160 miles (260 km) away from the open ocean, with temperatures of −2.2°C and under complete darkness — suggests that life in the world's harshest environment may be more adaptable and diverse than previously thought.

“It’s slightly bonkers,” says British Antarctic Survey (BAS) marine biogeographer and study leader Dr. Huw Griffiths. “Never in a million years would we have thought about looking for this kind of life because we didn’t think it would be there.”

The researchers stumbled upon the filter feeders deep under the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf (Credit: Paleo nim - Own work/ CC BY-SA 4.0/ Commons.wikimedia.org)

In 2017, BAS geologist James Smith and his colleagues embarked on a three-month expedition to the middle of Antarctica's Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf, to retrieve a sample of the seafloor sediment. The team drilled through the half-mile of ice by pumping almost 20,000 liters of hot water — created by melting 20 tons of snow — through a pipe lowered down a borehole. After about 20 hours of painstaking work, they were finally able to pierce through the ice shelf and reach the seabed underneath.

However, when the scientists lowered the instrument, along with a GoPro camera, to retrieve a soil sample, it came up empty. After multiple failed tries — each round trip taking about an hour — the researchers took a closer look at the footage and noticed a massive boulder sitting amid the relatively flat seabed. Even more surprising, the rock was covered with stationary animals, like sponges and potentially several previously unknown species.

The boulder found by the BAS scientists is covered with a large variety of sponges and other unknown marine organisms (Credit: Dr. Huw Griffiths/British Antarctic Survey)

The finding was particularly confounding given that sessile organisms — such as sponges and coral polyps — which spend their entire lives attached to submerged rocks, or other hard surfaces, need a constant food supply. In the open water, the "marine snow," as it is called, comes from decaying organic matter, which drifts down from the upper waters to the deep ocean. However, the organisms attached to the ice-shelf boulder are too far from the open sea to receive a steady supply of nutrients. To make matters worse, due to the area's strong ocean currents, the food has to travel anywhere from 370 to 930 miles to get to them.

“This is by far the furthest under an ice shelf that we’ve seen any of these filter-feeding animals,” said Griffiths. “These things are stuck on a rock and only get fed if something comes floating along."

The scientists, who published their findings in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science on February 15, 2021, say that since they cannot collect samples, it is difficult to get more insights into the organisms. “It was a real shock to find them there, a really good shock, but we can’t do DNA tests, we can’t work out what they’ve been eating, or how old they are. We don’t even know if they are new species, but they’re definitely living in a place where we wouldn’t expect them to be living,” Griffiths said.

Resources: Livescience.com, newscientist.com, bas,ac.uk

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178 Comments
  • duck96
    duck96Friday, April 23, 2021 at 8:20 am
    O_O WOW SO AWESOME!
    • pizza24foooot
      pizza24fooootThursday, April 22, 2021 at 7:22 am
      Wow Amazing I would so do that!!!!!!!
      • 2506431
        2506431Wednesday, April 21, 2021 at 4:41 pm
        I believe that the most interesting thing about this that if they nice scientists can find life in extremely cold temperatures, then they there might be life on other planets.
        • optimus_fan
          optimus_fanWednesday, April 21, 2021 at 10:11 am
          Wow
          • ocean_25
            ocean_25Tuesday, April 20, 2021 at 8:27 am
            wow that is so amazing
            • bmarkssjs
              bmarkssjsMonday, April 19, 2021 at 3:38 pm
              I agree that it is cool and also AMAZING!!! I would definitely go down and explore if I could.I would be brave enough to go down and explore and discover different species !!!😆
              • cloudyiq
                cloudyiqSaturday, April 17, 2021 at 11:03 am
                I like that it might be animals from the ice age like frozen water t rex's
                • catmaster048539
                  catmaster048539Friday, April 16, 2021 at 5:26 pm
                  One Of My Fav Articles So Far ❤
                  • mateoyt
                    mateoytThursday, April 15, 2021 at 5:35 pm
                    cool and crazy! i would be brave and enough to go down there.
                    • bennyben
                      bennybenThursday, April 15, 2021 at 3:52 pm
                      that is amazing how bio diverse some animals can be