Scientists have been surprised by signs of ancient life discovered in a lake deep beneath Antarctica.
I know what you’re thinking; isn’t Antarctica just basically a big mass of snow and ice, with some penguins waddling around? Well, for the most part yes, but there’s also some interesting things lurking beneath the ice.
Far below the West Antarctic ice sheet there is a lake which, thanks to geothermal heating, has managed to stay un-frozen despite being located beneath an ice sheet over one kilometre thick.
Scientists revealed the discovery of Lake Mercer in 2016, and according to IFL Science it is ribbon-shaped, around 100 kilometres long, and 10 kilometres wide. To help put that in perspective, the lake is more than twice the size of Manhattan in New York.
Curious as to what might be hiding beneath the surface of the subglacial lake, a team of polar scientists drilled a 1,000-metre-deep borehole towards Lake Mercer at the end of last year with the hopes of determining the diversity of life there.
Speaking to Live Science, expedition leader John Priscu explained the team’s findings:
We saw lots of bacteria – and the [lake] system has enough organic matter, you would think, to support higher life-forms.
After analysing the samples further, scientists were surprised to discover carcasses of crustaceans and a tardigrade, all measuring no bigger than a poppy seed. A tardigrade is an eight-legged micro-animal, which is also known as a ‘water bear’.
What makes the findings even more interesting is that some of the tiny creatures, including the tardigrade, would have been land dwellers, leaving scientists confused as to how they ended up in the subglacial Lake Mercer.
According to Nature, scientists suspected the creatures lived in ponds and streams in the Transantarctic Mountains during a brief period of warmer weather thousands of years ago, though the Transantarctic Mountains are located approximately 50 kilometres from Lake Mercer so it’s still unclear how they came to be in the lake.
David Harwood, a micro-palaeontologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who was part of the expedition, described the findings as ‘fully unexpected’.
The bacteria and creatures found in Lake Mercer indicate life is able to survive in hostile conditions, a fact which could have huge significance in the search for extraterrestrial life.
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