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Sea life ‘that shouldn’t be there’ found 900m under Antarctic ice sheet

Organisms including sponges found clinging to boulder hundreds of kilometres away from open water

Tom Embury-Dennis
Monday 15 February 2021 12:26 GMT
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Image taken from video footage at the seafloor beneath the Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf
Image taken from video footage at the seafloor beneath the Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf (Frontiers)
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Scientists have discovered life that “shouldn’t be there” under a 900-metre-thick Antarctic ice shelf.

Immobile life forms including what appear to be sponges and possibly barnacles were spotted on a boulder beneath the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf, 260km away from open water that carries the food such organisms rely on.

The discovery was made after a team led by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) drilled through the ice shelf and dropped a camera into the hole in order to explore the seabed below.

Huw Griffiths, a marine biogeographer at BAS, told the New Scientist there were “all sorts of reasons they shouldn’t be there”, since the creatures likely survive on photosynthetic organisms that require sunlight absent at the bottom of the giant ice shelf.

According to the study, published in Frontiers in Marine Science, Antarctic ocean currents suggest the animals’ food source could be drifting to them from as far as 1,500km away.

The find suggests life at the world’s southernmost and harshest continent is more adaptable and diverse than initially believed.

“We’ve discovered this isn’t some graveyard where a few things cling on, it’s more complicated than we thought,” Dr Griffiths said.

The team want to further study the life forms, which face an uncertain future in the face of a climate crisis leading to the collapse of ice sheets.

Most of Antarctica’s vital ice shelves remain frozen all year round and are stable, but fractures in their surfaces could make them vulnerable to rapid collapse if rising temperatures drive meltwater into the gaps, a separate study last year revealed.

Dr Griffiths now hopes to intensify the study of the creatures – a tough task in such an unforgiving and remote region of the planet.

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