Antarctica's Ice Caves May Harbor New Species

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The subglacial terrain, hollowed out by volcanic steam from the looming Mount Erebus, is surprisingly warm and ideal for hosting life. (Photo: Eli Duke/Flickr)

While nearly every corner of the Earth's surface has been charted and mapped by modern technology, there are still hidden ecosystems shielded from satellite imagery that await discovery.

Perhaps no greater part of the world proves this point better than Antarctica. Nearly twice the size of Australia, a majority of the continent's rivers, valleys, canyons and other geographical features are buried under an average of 6,200 feet of ice. While some of these natural wonders have been revealed thanks to ice-penetrating imaging technology, good old-fashioned exploration is also unmasking some of the potential discoveries lying in wait under the ice.

Researchers from Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra studying an extensive system of ice caves on Antarctica's Ross Island say they've retrieved DNA from soil samples that cannot be fully identified. The subglacial terrain, hollowed out by volcanic steam from the looming Mount Erebus, is surprisingly comfortable and ideal for hosting life.

"It can be really warm inside the caves, up to 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit) in some caves," Dr Ceridwen Fraser from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society said in a statement. "You could wear a T-shirt in there and be pretty comfortable. There's light near the cave mouths, and light filters deeper into some caves where the overlying ice is thin."

A subglacial Antarctic cave.
A subglacial Antarctic cave. (Photo: Eli Duke/Flickr)

The study, published in the journal Polar Biology, found DNA in the soil from four separate volcanic sites relating to plants like moss and algae and animals like nematodes, oligochaetes, and arthropods. Within the subglacial cave system of Mount Erebus, the researchers also discovered DNA that could not be accurately matched to anything currently on record.

"The results from this study give us a tantalizing glimpse of what might live beneath the ice in Antarctica — there might even be new species of animals and plants," Fraser added.

Like the plot from a Hollywood horror film, the next step is for the researchers to explore the interior of the caves in search of these new species; a trip they acknowledge will not be easy to pull off.

"We don't yet know just how many cave systems exist around Antarctica's volcanoes, or how interconnected these subglacial environments might be," co-researcher Dr. Charles Lee said. "They're really difficult to identify, get to, and explore."

Like other aspects of Antarctica's hidden world, we're only just now scraping the surface of what may be living underneath all the ice.

"Our results highlight the importance of investigating these cave systems in greater detail — despite the field challenges associated with such an endeavor - to confirm the presence of living macrobiota," the team wrote.