Strange creatures accidentally discovered beneath Antarctica’s ice shelf

British Antarctic Survey camera travelling down the 900-meter-long bore hole in the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf.

Scientists stumble across sea creatures living in -2°C water on seabed previously thought to be an uninhabited wasteland

During an exploratory survey, scientists from the British Antarctic Survey drilled through 900 meters of ice in the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf. The seabed beneath is under complete darkness and with temperatures of -2.2°C, but they found two types of filter-feeding sea sponges attached to a boulder, the first stationary animals ever seen in this habitat.

Researchers drilled the hole to take sediment samples from the sea floor when they ricocheted off the boulder (pictured), with the spinning camera capturing the lifeforms
Researchers drilled the hole to take sediment samples from the sea floor when they ricocheted off the boulder (pictured), with the spinning camera capturing the lifeforms
Image: British Antarctic Survey

The, currently unidentified, species are more than 200 miles from the nearest food source but appear to be thriving despite the arduous existence. “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.

Sponges and unidentified stalked animals on a boulder at the bottom of the ocean
Sponges and unidentified stalked animals on a boulder at the bottom of the ocean | Image: British Antarctic Survey

Floating ice shelves represent the greatest unexplored habitat in the Southern Ocean. They cover more that 1.5m sq km of the Antarctic continental shelf, but only a total area similar in size to a tennis court has been studied through eight prior boreholes.

“Our discovery raises so many more questions than it answers, such as how did they get there? What are they eating? How long have they been there?”

Dr Huw Griffiths, British Antarctic Survey

Current theories on what life could survive under ice shelves suggest that all life becomes less abundant as you move further away from open water and sunlight. Filter feeding organisms – which depend on a supply of food from above – were expected to be amongst the first to disappear further under the ice.

Antarctica ice
Antarctica | Image: Gaia 

This part of the world is one of the last truly unexplored regions of the world as floating ice shelves have made it impossible to study the ocean beneath. The exploration and study that has been done in this area has been primitive by modern standards as accessibility is so difficult due to the extreme weather. 

SOURCE 1, SOURCE 2, SOURCE 3, SOURCE 4

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