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.
The researchers note that the findings are not proof of new species but allow for the possibility of undiscovered ecosystems in the unexplored terrains. "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," said Laurie Connell, a co-researcher on the project.