Strange Life Found on Seafloor in the Dark, Beneath Antarctic Ice Shelf

Clinging to Antarctic rock, a small sedentary animal was discovered where none were thought to be able to survive

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Stationary animals – similar to sponges and potentially several previously unknown species – attached to a boulder on the sea floor.
Stationary animals – similar to sponges and potentially several previously unknown species – attached to a boulder on the sea floor.Credit: Dr. Huw Griffiths / British Antarctic Survey
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

On the bottom of the ocean beneath an Antarctic ice shelf, researchers have discovered a strange new species of sedentary animal where none were expected to survive. At a distance of 260 kilometers from the open ocean, in complete darkness, and at brisk temperatures of -2.2 degrees Celsius, what they eat is a mystery, said the surprised researchers, who found the animals attached to a boulder after drilling through 900 meters of ice on the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf in an exploratory survey.

An ice shelf is a floating platform of ice that forms on the ocean surface where a glacier or ice sheet flows to the coast. The goal had been to collect samples and video footage from the seabed deep below an ice shelf.

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The researchers were not anticipating finding new animals – evidently filter feeders, which strain microscopic organisms from the water – clinging to the rock.

The animals’ discovery was reported Monday in Frontiers of Marine Science by Dr. Huw Griffiths of the British Antarctic Survey and colleagues.

British Antarctic Survey camera traveling down the 900-meter-long bore hole in the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf. (Marine creature pictured is unrelated to the discovery.)Credit: Dr. Huw Griffiths / British Antarctic Survey

The farther from open water and sunlight, the less abundant life is thought to be. Some mobile animals such as krill had been reported beneath the ice shelves, but stationary animals dependent on microorganisms in the water current, descending from above, hadn’t been expected to eke out a living in the pitch dark that far from open sea. So the geologists were surprised first at finding rock, not mud, on the sea bottom – and then by the video images of the animals on a large boulder.

“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,” Griffith stated. The researchers add that floating ice shelves cover more that 1.5 million square kilometers of the Antarctic continental shelf, and the area studied so far, through boreholes, is similar in size to a tennis court. We may have many more surprises ahead.