Scientists accidentally found life under 3,000 feet of ice in Antarctica. 'Never in a million years' would they have expected it, the lead scientist said.

Marianne Guenot
·3 min read
Animals found under Ice
An image from a video in which scientists saw stationary animals under ice in Antarctica. The creatures appear similar to sponges. Dr Huw Griffiths/British Antarctic Survey/Insider
  • Scientists stumbled upon life under 3,000 feet of ice in Antarctica.

  • They found two types of unidentified animals, where they had thought nothing could live.

  • Their next step is finding a way to get close enough to identify the creatures.

  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Scientist have found life under 3,000 feet under of ice in Antarctica, challenging their assumption that nothing could live in such conditions.

The previous theory was that life couldn't exist in such extremity: no food, freezing temperatures, and complete darkness.

The creatures were found attached to a boulder in the frigid seas under the Filchner-Ronne ice shelf. Experts from the British Antarctic Survey drilled through 2,860 feet of ice and then another 1,549 feet of water before making the discovery.

Video: What if the Earth's ice melted overnight?

"The area underneath these ice shelves is probably one of the least-known habitats on Earth," said Huw Griffiths, one of the scientists who made the discovery, in a Twitter video.

"We didn't think that these kinds of animals, like sponges, would be found there."

—British Antarctic Survey (@BAS_News) February 15, 2021

The Filchner-Ronne ice shelf is a massive floating ice sheet that stretches out from Antarctica.

It spans more than 579,000 square miles, but little has been explored under the ice.

Enormous icebergs occasionally break off ice shelves and drift away. In December, one of these icebergs threatened to crash into a breeding ground for sealions and penguins.

Filchner Ronne Ice Shelf, Antartica
An annotated satellite image of the Filchner-Ronne ice shelf. Google Maps/Insider
ice sheets
The Filchner-Ronne ice shelf is the second-biggest ice shelf in Antarctica. British Antarctic Survey/Twitter

The scientists didn't set out looking for life.

They were drilling through the ice sheet to collect samples from the sea floor. Instead, their camera hit a boulder. When they reviewed the camera's footage, it revealed this discovery.

—British Antarctic Survey (@BAS_News) February 15, 2021

"Never in a million years would we have thought about looking for this kind of life, because we didn't think it would be there," Griffiths told The Guardian.

The video reveals two types of unidentified animals, shown here in a video from the British Antarctic Survey. The animals in red seem to have long stalks, whereas another type of animal, highlighted in white, looks more like a round sponge-like animal.

annotated video footage, new discovery animals, Antarctica
An annotated image of the footage that captured animals under the ice in Antarctica. British Antarctic Survey/Twitter

Other studies had looked at life under ice sheets. A few mobile animals, such as fish, worms, jellyfish, or krill, could be found in that habitat.

But it was thought that the deeper and farther away from a light source the habitat stretched, the less likely that life could be found.

Read more: Disney is shutting down the animation studio behind the 'Ice Age' movies. Some staffers say they're shocked at the lack of communication and feel betrayed that its final movie won't be released.

The scientists say these animals are about 160 miles from the open sea.

"Our discovery raises so many more questions than it answers, such as how did they get there?" Griffith said in a press release. "What are they eating? How long have they been there?"

The scientists said their next step was to understand whether the animals were from a previously unknown species.

"To answer our questions we will have to find a way of getting up close with these animals and their environment," Griffiths said.

Life in research stations in Antarctica is not easy, as Insider's Monica Humpfries reported.

They are so remote that the first case of COVID-19 on the continent was only reported in December.

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