Secret life may thrive under warm Antarctic caves: Study

By: | Updated: September 8, 2017 2:17 PM

A secret world of animals and plants - including unknown species - may be thriving in warm caves under Antarctica's glaciers, scientists said today.

Secret World, Antarctica, Antarctica glacier, Australian National University, Antarctica Report, Antarctica Study, University of WaikatoThe study led by Australian National University (ANU) found that around Mount Erebus, an active volcano on Ross Island in Antarctica. (Reuters)

A secret world of animals and plants – including unknown species – may be thriving in warm caves under Antarctica’s glaciers, scientists said today. The study led by Australian National University (ANU) found that around Mount Erebus, an active volcano on Ross Island in Antarctica, steam has hollowed out extensive cave systems. Forensic analyses of soil samples from these caves have revealed intriguing traces of DNA from algae, mosses and small animals, researchers said. “It can be really warm inside the caves – up to 25 degrees Celsius in some caves. You could wear a t-shirt in there and be pretty comfortable,” said Ceridwen Fraser from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society. “There is light near the cave mouths, and light filters deeper into some caves where the overlying ice is thin,” said Fraser, lead researcher of the study published in the journal Polar Biology.

Fraser said most of the DNA found in the caves on Mount Erebus was similar to DNA from plants and animals – including mosses, algae and invertebrates – found elsewhere in Antarctica, but not all sequences could be fully identified. “The results from this study give us a tantalising glimpse of what might live beneath the ice in Antarctica – there might even be new species of animals and plants,” she said. “These intriguing DNA traces did not conclusively prove plants and animals were still living in the caves,” said Laurie Connell, professor at the University of Maine in the US. “The next steps will be to take a closer look at the caves and search for living organisms. If they exist, it opens the door to an exciting new world,” she said.

According to Professor Craig Cary from the University of Waikato in New Zealand, previous research had found that diverse bacterial and fungal communities lived in Antartica’s volcanic caves. “The findings from this new study suggest there might be higher plants and animals as well,” Cary said. There were many other volcanoes in Antarctica, so subglacial cave systems could be common across the icy continent, researchers said. It is not yet known just how many cave systems exist around Antarctica’s volcanoes, or how interconnected these subglacial environments might be. They are really difficult to identify, get to and explore, they said.

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