Secret Life May Thrive Under Warm Antarctic Caves

Secret Life May Thrive Under Warm Antarctic Caves
Secret Life May Thrive Under Warm Antarctic Caves. A glacial cave in Antarctica.

Antarctica’s Hidden Caves Could Be Home to 'New World' of Plants and Animals

A secret world of animals and plants—including unknown species—may live in warm caves under Antarctica's glaciers, scientists said.

The caves, hollowed out by steam from active volcanoes, are light and could reach temperatures of 25 degrees Celsius (77 Fahrenheit), researchers said, raising the possibility of a whole ecosystem of flora and fauna deep beneath the frozen surface.

The cave systems underneath the Antarctic ice could be home to an “exciting new world” of plants and animals. After analyzing DNA retrieved from a cave system underneath the Ross Island volcano Mount Erebus, scientists at the Australia National University found samples that could not be fully identified—pointing to the presence of unidentified species living in the subglacial terrains.

The caves around Mount Erebus are surprisingly hot—geothermal heat from the volcano has led to the formation of vents, with volcanic steam hollowing out extensive and interconnected cave systems.

"It can be really warm inside the caves—up to 25 degrees Celsius [77 degrees Fahrenheit] in some caves,” Ceidwen Fraser, lead researcher on the project, 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."

In the study, published in the journal Polar Biology, the team collected soil samples from three volcanoes in the Victoria Land region of Antarctica, and from the subglacial caves of Mount Erebus. Their findings showed many types of moss, algae, arthropods and nematodes at all the sites, supporting the idea that geothermal areas, including caves hidden beneath the ice, can be havens for biodiversity.

At the Mount Erebus site, the team also found DNA in the soil that could not be fully identified. "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 said.

Concluding, the scientists said subglacial caves have been found around other Antarctic volcanoes, and subglacial volcanoes continue to be discovered. “Despite recent advances in our broad understanding of Antarctic biodiversity, we still know little about life in the continent’s subglacial cave systems, which may harbor diverse and complex communities,” they wrote.

The evidence they found suggests these cave systems need to be investigated in greater detail, and that the “true biological diversity” in these environments is “almost certainly” underestimated.

But despite recent advances in understanding Antarctic biodiversity, scientists still know "little about life in the continent's subglacial cave systems, which may harbour diverse and complex communities".

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

The above story is based on Materials provided by The Australian National University.
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