Warm caves may hold se­cret world

Bangkok Post - - WORLD -

SYD­NEY: A se­cret world of an­i­mals and plants — in­clud­ing un­known species — may live in warm caves un­der Antarc­tica’s glaciers, sci­en­tists say.

The caves, hol­lowed out by steam from ac­tive vol­ca­noes, are light and could reach tem­per­a­tures of 25C, re­searchers said, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of a whole ecosys­tem of flora and fauna deep be­neath the frozen sur­face.

A study led by the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity around Mt Ere­bus, an ac­tive vol­cano on Ross Is­land in Antarc­tica, showed ex­ten­sive cave sys­tems.

Lead re­searcher Cerid­wen Fraser said foren­sic analy­ses of soil sam­ples from the caves had re­vealed in­trigu­ing traces of DNA from al­gae, mosses and small an­i­mals.

While most of the DNA was sim­i­lar to mosses, al­gae and in­ver­te­brates found else­where in Antarc­tica, not all se­quences could be fully iden­ti­fied.

“The re­sults from this study give us a tan­ta­lis­ing glimpse of what might live be­neath the ice in Antarc­tica — there might even be new species of an­i­mals and plants,” she said.

“The next step is to go and have a re­ally good look and see if we can find com­mu­ni­ties liv­ing be­neath the ice in Antarc­tica.”

De­spite the con­ti­nent’s freez­ing tem­per­a­tures, Mr Fraser said heat em­a­nat­ing from the vol­ca­noes could make the caves quite hos­pitable, warm enough “to wear a T-shirt and be com­fort­able”, with light fil­ter­ing deep down where the over­ly­ing ice was thin.

Co-re­searcher Charles Lee, from the Univer­sity of Waikato in New Zealand, said there were many other vol­ca­noes in Antarc­tica, so sub­glacial cave sys­tems could be com­mon.

“We don’t yet know just how many cave sys­tems ex­ist around Antarc­tica’s vol­ca­noes, or how in­ter­con­nected these sub­glacial en­vi­ron­ments might be,” he said. “They’re re­ally dif­fi­cult to iden­tify, get to and ex­plore.”

The re­search, pub­lished in in­ter­na­tional jour­nal Po­lar Bi­ol­ogy, said there were more than 15 vol­ca­noes in Antarc­tica that were ei­ther known to be cur­rently ac­tive or show ev­i­dence of re­cent ac­tiv­ity.

But de­spite re­cent ad­vances in un­der­stand­ing Antarc­tic bio­di­ver­sity, sci­en­tists still know “lit­tle about life in the con­ti­nent’s sub­glacial cave sys­tems, which may har­bour di­verse and com­plex com­mu­ni­ties”.

“Our re­sults high­light the im­por­tance of in­ves­ti­gat­ing these cave sys­tems in greater de­tail,” it said.

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