A new study published in the journal Current Biology has found that far beneath the vast ice sheets of the Antarctic, there is much more marine life than previously thought. Under the massive ice sheets, which are occupying nearly 1.6 million square kilometers, dozens of species are thriving in perpetually dark, cold, and still habitats.
In 2018, a research team led by the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) from Germany drilled two holes through nearly 200 meters of the Ekström Ice Shelf close to the Neumayer Station III in the South Eastern Weddell Sea.
There, they discovered an unexpectedly rich and biodiverse array of specimens (77 species) apparently thriving in an extremely harsh and cold environment. In fact, the samples that they collected proved to be much richer than many others found in continental regions with more light and food sources.
“This discovery of so much life living in these extreme conditions is a complete surprise and reminds us how Antarctic marine life is so unique and special,” said study lead author Dr. David Barnes, a marine biologist at the British Antarctic Survey.
“It’s amazing that we found evidence of so many animal types, most feed on micro-algae (phytoplankton) yet no plants or algae can live in this environment. So the big question is how do these animals survive and flourish here?”
According to Dr. Barnes and his colleagues, large quantities of algae are probably constantly carried under the ice sheets from open water, thus helping to maintain a strong food web.
“Another surprise was to find out how long life has existed here. Carbon dating of dead fragments of these seafloor animals varied from current to 5800 years,” said study co-author Dr. Gerhard Kuhn from AWI, who coordinated the drilling project.
“So, despite living 3-9 km from the nearest open water, an oasis of life may have existed continuously for nearly 6000 years under the ice shelf. Only samples from the seafloor beneath the floating ice shelf will tell us stories from its past history.”
However, the scientists warn that, due to the possible collapse of the ice shelves caused by climate change, these incredibly rich and diverse marine ecosystems could be significantly threatened in a matter of decades, if not even years.