Life thriving under such extreme conditions – in the dark and at extremely low temperatures – is a complete surprise.
The lion’s share of the Antarctic coast is surrounded by ice shelves or ice shelves: large floating areas of ice fed by glaciers and connected to the land. Together they cover approximately 1.6 million square kilometers of water and the sea floor underneath. Primary water is not very attractive due to the presence of those ice shelves; The weather is very dark and cold. However, there is life in those waters. In fact; There is a thriving ecosystem with a wide variety of species. The researchers write this in the journal current biology.
It is based on research conducted under the Ekström ice shelf. This ice shelf covers an area of about 8,700 square kilometers and is up to 200 meters thick in places.
To better understand what lives under the ice shelf, the researchers used warm water to drill two holes in the ice shelf. Then they collected and identified the life forms that lived in the water and the sea floor under this ice. Contrary to all expectations, this led to more work than expected. Because the water was home to a variety of species. “Discovering so much life under these extreme conditions is a complete surprise and a reminder of how special and unique the marine life of Antarctica is,” said researcher David Barnes.
In all, the researchers found at least 77 different species, including bryozoans and tubeworms. “It’s great that we found evidence of so many different species of animals,” Barnes said. But it also raises questions. Most of them feed on microalgae (phytoplankton), but plants or algae cannot live in this environment. So the big question is, how can these animals survive and thrive here? “Currently, algae that live in higher places in open water are thought to feed under the ice shelf. It is clear that animals living under the ice shelf can not only survive, but actually thrive; for example, it was found that four Fewer of the species detected under the ice shelf grow at a similar speed annually as similar organisms that live in open water.
Nearly 6000 years old
But it wasn’t just the wide variety of life forms that fascinated researchers. Turns out, the Extreme Habitat has another surprise in store. For example, radiocarbon dating of fragments of dead animals resting on the sea floor indicates that some of these animals died recently and others died 5800 years ago. “Although we are three to nine kilometers from the nearest open water here, the oasis of life may have existed here under the ice shelf for nearly 6,000 years in a row,” researcher Gerhard Kuhn said.
This isn’t the first time researchers have taken a look under an ice shelf. Previously, holes were also drilled in ice shelves to use cameras to see what could be found underneath. What makes this study special is that the animals that live under the ice shelf have already been collected and identified. In addition, the wide variety of species is also unique; More species are found under the Ekström ice shelf than were known to us until recently under all the ice shelves combined.
For now, the study questions at least an important hypothesis about life under ice shelves. For example, researchers believed that the number of life forms and types gradually decreases as you move away from open water (and thus sunlight as well). It was expected that the filter feeders would be the first to turn off, but this turned out not to be the case. Life in such a large distance from open water is also much more diverse than expected.
Much more research is needed on what lies beneath the ice shelves – which can also be found around Greenland, for example. This is the only way to get a better picture of what lives there now and what lived in the past. However, the researchers stress that research into this is a race against time. Climate change is already thinning the ice shelves and many plateaus I lost some pieces of ice Some completely collapsed. Of course this also has consequences for the ecosystem below, which has been able to survive for thousands of years in the dark and cold and with limited resources. The least disturbed habitat on Earth may be the first to disappear as climate change causes ice shelves to disappear.
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