Under the layers of snow and ice in Antarctica, there could be plants and animals living in the warm climate of underground caves.
This is the theory of an international team of scientists who investigated an extensive system of underground caves around Mount Erebus, the second most active volcano in Antarctica, on Ross Island.
Soil samples collected in the caves revealed DNA traces of algae, mosses and small animals. According to Ceridwen Fraser, a researcher at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, and co-author of the study, most of the samples resemble that of plants and animals in the rest of Antarctica.
However, some sequences could not be identified, so additional investigation might reveal species that have not yet been discovered .
Fraser said the caves can be very warm, even up to 25 degrees celsius (77F), enabling the researchers to feel comfortable in the Antarctic caves even in a shirt. There is also some light near cave entrances – and even further in for some caves where the sunlight filters through a thin ice sheet overhead.
According to the researcher, the samples are evidence that plants and animals are potentially alive in the caves. However, they haven’t actually seen any live samples so cannot be completely sure.
Craig Cary, a researcher at the University of Waikato in New Zealand and co-author of the study, said previous research had uncovered a number of bacteria and fungi in Antarctic volcanoes (video). This new project indicates there may be more complex plants and animals as well.
The researchers’ next step will be to take a closer look at these caves and look for living organisms Antarctica features several volcanoes, which may make subglacial cave systems – and possibly life within them – more common than we thought.
Check out this Australian National University (ANU) video for more information