Scientists Discover Extraordinary Marine Life Hidden 200 Meters From Antarctic Sea Ice

According to a recent study published in the journal Current Biology this week, there is more marine life farther below Antarctica’s ice shelves than previously thought.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Although they cover more than 1.6 million km2, ice shelves are one of the least known habitats in the world. On camera, life can be spotted in these perpetually dark, cold and quiet environments, but it is rarely captured.

In 2018, a team of researchers from the German Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research, drilled two holes through more than 200 meters of the Ekström ice shelf near the Neumayer III station in the southeast Weddell Sea, using hot water. . The climate is harsh and very cold (minus 2.2 degrees centigrade).

Related article: What can scientists do to save ‘Noah’s Ark’, the last patch of ice in the Arctic?

Life at the bottom of the sea

The underwater life discovered was extraordinary and totally unexpected. The wealth of objects they found was extraordinarily large, despite being many miles from the open sea. Indeed, many samples of open water have been discovered on the continental shelf, where light and food sources are more abundant.

Scientists have discovered 77 species, including saber-shaped bryozoans (moss creatures) like Melicerita obliqua and serpulid worms like Paralaeospira sicula, which is far more than previously known about this entire ecosystem.

Dr David Barnes, lead author of the study and a marine scientist at the British Antarctic Survey, says:

“The discovery of so much life living in these extreme conditions is a complete surprise, and it reminds us how unique and special Antarctic marine life is. It is amazing that we have found evidence of so many types animals, the majority of which feed on microalgae (phytoplankton), but no plan. Yet no algae can live in this environment, so the big question is how do these animals survive and thrive here?”

Algae

Sea ice in Antarctica showing a brown layer of ice algae (IMAGE)

(Photo: Rick Cavicchioli, UNSW Sydney)
Sea ice in Antarctica showing a brown layer of ice algae. These microbes thrive in sea ice “houses” and are the start of many food webs, which branch out to feed all larger life forms. Melting sea ice has a downstream effect on ice algae, which means a decrease in the food web and an increased risk of starving ocean life.

The researchers believe that enough algae has moved under the sea ice from the open ocean to support a healthy food web. According to microscopy of the samples, the annual development of four of the species was surprisingly close to that of similar organisms in the open marine environments of the Antarctic shelf.

Dr. Gerhard Kuhn (AWI), who managed the drill effort as a co-author, says:

“Another surprise was learning how long life has existed here: carbon dating of the dead fragments of these seabed animals ranged from present day to 5,800 years ago, implying that despite “Being 3-9 kilometers from open water, an oasis of life may have existed continuously for nearly 6,000 years under the pack ice. Only samples of the seabed beneath the floating pack ice will tell us stories of its history.”

According to current beliefs about what life can live under the ice floes, all life becomes less abundant the further you get from the open sea and the sun. Small mobile scavengers and predators, such as fish, worms, jellyfish and krill, have been found in these ecosystems in previous surveys. However, it was predicted that the filter-feeding species, which depend on food from above, would be the first to go under the ice.

Environmental Safeguards

Antarctic

(Photo: Getty Images)

Time is running out to research and save these ecosystems due to climate change and the loss of these ice shelves, say scientists.

The article “Richness, growth, and persistence of life under an Antarctic ice shelf” was published in Current Biology by David KA Barnes, Gerhard Kuhn, Claus-Dieter Hillenbrand, Raphael Gromig, Nikola Koglin, Boris K. Biskaborn, Bettina AV Frinault, Johann P. Klages and Julian Gutt.

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