What started out as a mission to gather sediment from an Antarctic ice shelf ended in a bit of a surprise when researchers discovered an array of strange creatures on the footage when they began to review it.
Back in 2016, a team of scientists from around the world sought to learn more about the mysterious ecosystems under Antarctica's vast ice shelves - specifically, the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf. The trip turned into a disaster, with the research team drilling through half a mile of ice only to find a large, gray boulder blocking them from getting a good sample. They were disappointed - the team was looking for ice shelf sediment to study, not videos of a giant rock.
The surprise came when biologists back at Cambridge University saw the sample. Thanks to a go-pro attached to the borer, the researchers had unwittingly stumbled upon an array of strange creatures living on the boulder, some of which appeared to be Antarctic sea sponges while others were still unidentified. The discovery came as a shock because conditions under this ice shelf aren't exactly hospitable for most life. With temperatures that stay well below freezing and constant darkness, it's hard to believe that much would be able to live there, let alone thrive there.
All of these findings were released in a new study this past Monday. Huw Griffiths, a marine biologist with the British Antarctic Survey, said, "It's kind of like finding a bit of the rainforest in the middle of the Sahara. It's the wrong place for that thing." According to Griffiths, these findings go against anything they expected to see that far under the ice shelves.
The lab scientists recognized immediately that the animals attached to the rock were filter feeders, which eat by straining suspended matter and food particles in the water. But, these creatures had been living 162 miles away from the open ocean where the food must have been coming from. Scientists expect to see mobile creatures who can travel around to find small amounts of food that are available, but not stationary life that has no opportunity to forage and needs to wait for the food to come to it instead.
The study was published Monday in Frontiers in Marine Science, and it's a pretty interesting read. These new findings show just how much scientists are still trying to learn about parts of the Earth that are often hidden away from our eyes. With warming waters, however, the window of opportunity for studying these animals is shrinking. The danger of the ice shelves melting is part of what makes researching them - and what lies beneath - so important.
What do you think of this discovery? Anything else cool in biology happening right now that you're reading about?