A group of scientists has found extensive cave systems surrounding an active volcano in Antarctica, and researchers say the caves are warm enough to support life.
The discovery was made by scientists at the Australian National University. The team came across a series of caves surrounded by active volcanoes while studying Mount Erebus, an active volcano on Ross Island in Antarctica.}
Scientists say the caves are light and could reach temperatures of 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit) which means life could be possible there and raises the possibility of an ecosystem beneath the frozen caves.
Moss, algae, and invertebrate DNA found inside cave systems surrounding Mount Erebus
The team was stationed at Mount Erebus when they discovered the cave systems, which were carved out of the ice steam from the active volcano. While exploring the caves, the researchers collected DNA samples coming from mosses, algae, and several small invertebrates, according to lead researcher Ceridwen Fraser.
Fraser, from the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society, noted that while most of the DNA analyzed was similar to mosses, algae, and small invertebrates found elsewhere in Antarctica, not every sample could be correctly identified.
“The results from this study give us a tantalizing glimpse of what might live beneath the ice in Antarctica – there might even be new species of animals and plants,” said Fraser, according to Popular Mechanics. “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 Antarctica’s freezing temperatures, Fraser said heat emanating from Mount Erebus could make the caves hospitable and comfortable. She noted the caves could be warm enough “to wear a t-shirt and be comfortable,” and added there’s light filtering deep down where the overlying ice is thin.
Antarctica’s volcanoes could be home to more cave systems
Antarctica is home to a wide range of volcanoes, and it’s likely the scientists will find similar cave systems elsewhere in the continent. Co-researcher Charles Lee, from the University of Waikato in New Zealand, said there are 15 known active volcanoes in the continent, so sub-glacial cave systems could be common.
“We don’t yet know just how many cave systems exist around Antarctica’s volcanoes, or how interconnected these sub-glacial environments might be,” said Lee, according to Phys.org. “They’re really difficult to identify, get to, and explore.”
In the study, which was recently published in the international journal Polar Biology, the researchers noted that out of all of Antarctica’s volcanoes, they are positive that at least 15 are active or show evidence of recent activity. Moreover, other volcanoes are continued to be found on the icy continent.
However, the team noted that despite recent breakthroughs in understanding Antarctic biodiversity, they still know very little about life in the continent’s sub-glacial cave systems, “which may harbor diverse and complex communities.”
“Our results highlight the importance of investigating these cave systems in greater detail – despite the field challenges associated with such an endeavor – to confirm the presence of living microbiota,” wrote the authors.