But as a result of the researchers couldn’t gather specimens, they’ll’t but say what precisely these sponges and different critters might be consuming. Some sponges filter natural detritus from the water, whereas others are carnivorous, feasting on tiny animals. “That would be sort of your headline of the year,” says Christopher Mah, a marine biologist on the Smithsonian, who wasn’t concerned within the analysis. “Killer Sponges, Living in the Dark, Cold Recesses of Antarctica, Where No Life Can Survive.”
And Griffiths and his staff can also’t but say if cell creatures like fish and crustaceans additionally dwell across the rock—the digital camera didn’t glimpse any—so it’s not clear if the sessile animals face some variety of predation. “Are they all eating the same food source?” asks Griffiths. “Or are some of them kind of getting nutrients from each other? Or are there more mobile animals around somehow providing food for this community?” These are all questions solely one other expedition can reply.
It does seem that sedimentation across the rock isn’t very heavy, which means the animals aren’t at risk of being buried. “It’s kind of a Goldilocks-type thing going on,” says Griffiths of the rock’s apparently fortuitous location, “where it’s got just enough food coming in, and it’s got nothing that wants to eat them—as far as we can tell—and it’s not getting buried by too much sediment.” (In the sediment surrounding the rock, the researchers additionally observed ripples which can be sometimes shaped by currents, thus bolstering the idea that meals is being carried right here from afar.)
It’s additionally not clear how these stationary animals received there within the first place. “Was it something very local, where they kind of hopped from local boulder to local boulder?” asks Griffiths. Alternatively, maybe their dad and mom lived on a rock lots of of miles away—the place the ice shelf ends and extra typical marine ecosystems start—and launched their sperm and eggs to journey within the currents.
Because Griffiths and his colleagues don’t have specimens, in addition they can’t say how previous these animals are. Antarctic sponges have been identified to dwell for hundreds of years, so it’s doable that that is a actually historical ecosystem. Perhaps the rock was seeded with life way back, however currents have additionally refreshed it with further life over the millennia.
The researchers can also’t say whether or not this rock is an aberration, or if such ecosystems are literally frequent underneath the ice. Maybe the geologists didn’t simply get extraordinarily fortunate once they dropped their digital camera onto the rock—perhaps these animal communities are a common function of the seafloor beneath Antarctica’s ice cabinets. There’d actually be a lot of room for such ecosystems: These floating ice cabinets stretch for 560,000 sq. miles. Yet, by earlier boreholes, scientists have solely explored an space beneath them equal to the scale of a tennis court docket. So it might be that they’re on the market in numbers, and we simply haven’t discovered them but.
And we could also be working out of time to take action. This rock could also be locked away underneath a half mile of ice, however that ice is more and more imperiled on a warming planet. “There is a potential that some of these big ice shelves in the future could collapse,” says Griffiths, “and we could lose a unique ecosystem.”
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