Unexpected Lifeforms Found Deep beneath Antarctica’s Ice Shelves

A plethora of new and surprising lifeforms have been uncovered deep under the ice sheets of Antarctica. They may not be large or attractive, but the unexpected finding is teaching scientists how life can thrive in one of the world’s most inhospitable places. Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey recently revealed the discovery of 77 new species beneath the Antarctic ice shelves, including sword-shaped bryozoans and serpulid worms, as published in the journal Current Biology.

Bryozoa, sometimes known as moss creatures, is a class of tiny invertebrate invertebrates that live in water. These organisms, which are usually scarcely more than a millimeter in length, have robust exoskeletons akin to corals and a swarm of hair-like tentacles that filter feed. Serpulid worms are sedentary suspension feeders that are comparable to serpulid worms.

Even the appearance of these seemingly little animals raises a slew of issues. Sunlight is absorbed and transformed into useable forms of energy in most ecosystems. The creatures, on the other hand, dwell beneath hundreds of meters of ice, where no light can reach them. So, how do they survive on this planet?

“The finding of so much life existing in such harsh conditions is a complete shock, and it serves as a reminder of how rare and wonderful Antarctic marine life is.” Dr. David Barnes, main research author and marine scientist at the British Antarctic Survey, stated in a statement, “It’s astonishing that we uncovered evidence of so many animal kinds, most of which feed on microalgae (phytoplankton), yet no plants or algae can exist in this environment.”

“So, how do these creatures live and thrive here?” says the narrator. Although doubts persist, the team believes the reason rests in large volumes of algae that have been transported under the ice shelf from Open Ocean. Surprisingly, life thrives beneath the ice sheet rather than in open waters.

A 200-meter (656-foot) deep hole was bored on the Ekström Ice Shelf at Neumayer Station III in the South Eastern Weddell Sea in 2018 to get access to this little-known ecosystem. On the surface, the conditions are extremely severe, with temperatures frequently falling below zero degrees Celsius. While lifeforms ranging from krill to fish have been detected beneath the ice shelves of Antarctica before, this latest investigation has thrown up a few surprises.

“Another surprise was learning how long life has been here,” said Dr. Gerhard Kuhn, research co-author and drilling project coordinator at the Alfred Wegener Institute. Carbon dating of dead remnants of these bottom creatures ranged from the present to 5800 years. 

Despite residing 3-9 kilometers from the nearest open water, an oasis of life may have survived under the ice shelf for approximately 6000 years. Only samples taken from the seabed underneath the floating ice shelf will reveal information about the ice shelf’s past.