The frozen desert of Antarctica is not exactly a place you would want to call home. But under its surface lies an unexplored, watery world of subglacial lakes and rivers stretching for millions of square miles, the ice above exerting enough pressure to keep them from freezing. But when scientists found a diverse bacterial haven in the secluded lakes, they were mystified: What other organisms could exist under such harsh conditions, almost a mile away from the light and nutrients required to sustain life? That’s just what the Subglacial Antarctic Lakes Scientific Access—or, SALSA—expedition wants to figure out.
In December, scientists bored through nearly 3300 feet (or around one kilometer) of ice to reach Lake Mercer. Rather than using a drill, they melted a narrow hole in the ice with hot water. In a sample collected with a thin, remote-controlled probe, they found not only the preserved remains of ancient bacteria and algae, but also what appeared to be the shells of tiny crustaceans. (Imagine shrimp, but smaller than a pinhead.) There was even a tardigrade, the famed microscopic “water bear” found in other extreme climates like volcanoes and deep sea vents.
Scientists were shocked not only by the discovery of former animals, but also the extremely young appearance of these remains; relatively, the crustaceans and tardigrade appeared to be just thousands of years old, compared to their million-year-old bacterial companions. Historic oscillations in Antarctic climate could have recently transplanted these animals and allowed them to survive for a time. Antarctica’s icy expanses also remind some scientists of other out-of-this-world climates, like the moons of Jupiter and Mars’s ice caps. Experience from this expedition might prove useful when looking for life elsewhere in our solar system—take a peak beneath the surface.
Managing Correspondent: Aparna Nathan
Original article: Tiny animal carcasses found in buried Antarctic lake – Nature
Media coverage: Scientists find new evidence of life beneath Antarctic ice – Axios
Image credit: Jason Auch/Wikimedia Commons