Secret caves below Antarctica’s glaciers could boast new life

By Angela Heathcote 8 September 2017
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The little-explored cave networks hidden below the glacial surfaces of the icy continent— discoveries of which are steadily increasing— have scientists excited about the potential for new life.

SOIL SAMPLES taken from inside the hidden cave networks that lie beneath Antarctica’s glaciers reveal the potential for new life, scientists from the Australian National University say.

The caves, dotted around Mount Erebus— the second highest active volcano in Antarctica, have been hollowed out by steam and can exhibit temperatures from up to 25 degrees Celsius, creating an optimal environment for algae, mosses and small animals.

While much of the DNA extracted from these cave networks matches those that can be found in other parts of the icy continent, head researcher, Ceridwen Fraser explained that not all sequences could be identified, which she said, points to the potential for new discoveries.

“We already knew there was some bacterial and fungal life in the caves but nobody had looked for plants or animals before. The DNA sequences we got, using techniques that targeted plants, animals and fungi indicate there might be invertebrate animals, mosses and algae in the cave systems,” Ceridwen told Australian Geographic.

“Intriguingly, some of the arthropod sequences didn’t match anything on published genetic databases. That might be because they come from species we already know, but which have not yet been very well characterised genetically, or it might indicate that there are species we haven’t seen before. Certainly, elsewhere in the world, subterranean cave systems are often found to have specialised cave-adapted organisms living in them.”

But Ceridwen explained that looking for living plants and animals is a lot like looking for a needle in a haystack as many of these organisms are extremely small and patchily distributed. These complex cave networks are also difficult to get to and dangerous to explore.

Ceridwen and her team of researchers hope to receive enough funding over the next few years for another trip to Antarctica to further explore the potential for new life in these cave networks but with a fresh approach.

“We could take larger samples for microscopic analysis, and also look for expressed RNA instead of DNA, which could indicate living creatures, whereas DNA just shows plant and animal material is there, but doesn’t tell us if it was alive when collected,” she said.

“We don’t yet know the full extent of these cave systems. Scientists suspect they might be large and highly interconnected. There have also been recent discoveries of similar caves on other other, nearby volcanoes though these are even less well known so far.” 

Ceridwen’s new study, published in Polar Biology today, follows on from the recent discovery of 91 volcanoes across the West Antarctic region, suggesting that there may be more subglacial cave systems than previously imagined.