A study of the subglacial caves could reveal new undiscovered animal or plant species living comfortably due to the heat of an active volcano.
Deep within Antarctica’s ice caves, a group of scientists may have discovered a secret ecosystem of plants and animals being supported by the warmth of an active volcano.
Although average year-long temperatures on Ross Island hover around -17C, including six months between April and September where they don’t rise above -20C, the temperature in cave systems beneath the glaciers can reach 25C.
“You could wear a T-shirt in there and be pretty comfortable,” lead researcher Ceridwen Fraser said. “There’s light near the cave mouths, and light filters deeper into some caves where the overlying ice is thin.”
Located around and beneath Mount Erebus, an active volcano, the caves have been hollowed out after years of steam travelling through their passages. The study of the caves, led by the Australian National University, evolved into an analysis of the soil within. Fraser revealed that it contained traces of DNA from algae, mosses and even small animals that could be living in the underground oasis.
Most of the DNA, Fraser admits, is similar to that of species living on the surface. However, not all the sequences studied could be linked to a particular animal or plant group, meaning Fraser may be on the cusp of discovering new lifeforms as well.
“Our study gives us a really exciting, tantalizing glimpse of the sorts of plants and animals that might live beneath the ice in Antarctica,” she said. “Some of the DNA evidence that we found suggests that maybe there are things living in these caves that we know nothing about.
“There could even be new species.”
Because there are several active volcanoes in the Antarctic, co-researcher Charles Lee, from the University of Waikato in New Zealand, said similar unexplored subglacial cave systems could exist across the continent. The research, originally published in the international journal Polar Biology, said there are another 15 volcanoes in Antarctica that are currently active or suggest signs of recent activity.
“We don’t yet know just how many cave systems exist around Antarctica’s volcanoes, or how interconnected these subglacial environments might be,” he said
Co-author Laurie Connell, a professor from the University of Maine, shared her colleagues’ excitement but said the DNA evidence doesn’t prove anything — especially that plants and animals are still living there. The next step is to explore the caves themselves, hoping to find the living proof the team needs.
“If they exist, it opens the door to an exciting new world.”
Source National Post