By drilling through half a mile of thick ice and looking under the Antarctic Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf, scientists have accidentally stumbled upon strange creatures lurking on a cliff beneath the icy continent. Using a GoPro, a team of polar scientists with the British Antarctic Survey examined a boulder at a depth of over 4,000 feet and found that it lived with alien stalks.
The research, published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science on Monday, took place between 2015 and 2018 and is the first to document immobile animals – three “suspension feeders” that the team identifies as fungi and possibly other invertebrates. The discovery came as a surprise to scientists drilling through the shelf facing the Weddell Sea.
“This discovery is one of the lucky accidents that push ideas in a different direction and show us that Antarctic marine life is incredibly special,” Huw Griffiths, lead author and biogeographer with the British Antarctic Survey, said in a press release.
Finding life in depth is not uncommon in the open ocean, but 160 miles inland under the ice shelf, previous research had never discovered any stationary life. Only mobile animals were thought to occupy such a place during Antarctica because there is believed to be a severe lack of nutrients in the abyss. While researchers found 22 individual animals, there is still much to learn.
“Our discovery raises so many more questions than it answers, such as how did they get there? What do they eat? How long have they been there?” asks Griffiths.
Scientists make some guesses and perhaps suggest that the creatures survive in the long run by “island jumping” between rocks in the deep, just as creatures in the open sea are able to “jump” between hydrothermal vents and whale falls. They may also be at risk due to climate change and loss of shelves.
Learning more about these creatures and their environment is slow. Researchers have only been able to acquire information by drilling through the shelves, and the team writes that the total area analyzed so far can be compared to a tennis court – approx. 200 square meters. The shelf life of the ice shelf covers more than 1.5 million square kilometers.
“We need to find new and innovative ways to study them and answer all the new questions we have,” Griffiths said.
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