‘Hidden world’ of marine life discovered under Antarctic ice

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A penguin colony on the eastern side of the Antarctic peninsula (REUTERS)
A penguin colony on the eastern side of the Antarctic peninsula (REUTERS)

Scientists have discovered a “hidden world” that is “teeming” with marine life 500 metres under the Antarctic ice.

The fascinating discovery was made by researchers from New Zealand in a suspected estuary under the ice hundreds of kilometres from the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf.

When the scientists drilled down into the ice the camera was suddenly swarmed by amphipods - a type of animal from the same family that includes lobsters, crabs, and mites.

Professor Craig Stevens, a physical oceanographer at the National Institute of Water and Atmospherics (Niwa), said: “We’ve done experiments in other parts of the ice shelf and thought we had a handle on things, but this time big surprises were thrown up. For a while, we thought something was wrong with the camera but when the focus improved, we noticed a swarm of arthropods around 5mm in size.

“We were jumping up and down because having all those animals swimming around our equipment means that there’s clearly an important ecosystem there.

“We’ve taken some water samples back to the lab to look at the DNA and other properties of the water to see what makes it unique, as we were observing something not seen in other systems close by.”

The work has been supported by Antartica New Zealand was undertaken by Niwa and researchers from the Universitites of Otago, Auckland and Wellington, along with Geological and Nuclear Sciences (GNS) to investigate what role the estuary could play in climate-induced ice-shelf melt.

The discovery of the estuary was made by Huw Horgan, the project lead and Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington’s Associate Professor of geophysical glaciology.

Scientists have long suspected there were hidden rivers and lakes under the Antarctic ice, but they have not previously been directly surveyed, said Dr Horgan.

He added: “Getting to observe and sample this river was like being the first to enter a hidden world. On the ice shelf surface there is a little valley snaking down to the coast.

“Beneath this, there is a cathedral-like cavern, hundreds of meters high, teeming with life. All this hidden under the vast ice shelf.”

Dr Richard Levy from GNS and Te Herenga Waka said: “It’s discoveries like these that emphasise how much there is to learn about the Antarctic system.”

“The ice sheets have a massive influence on sea level. Not only are we working to better determine what they will do in the future, but we get to make these startling and unexpected discoveries along the way.”

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