A recent expedition to Antarctica has yielded a fascinating discovery, Nature has just revealed in a thrilling report. Buried deep under the ice, scientists have uncovered the remains of tiny animals dating back to the last Ice Age or possibly even before that time.
Among the ancient creatures brought to light by the researchers were small crustaceans, algae, a fungus, and the body of a tardigrade — a microscopic invertebrate also known as a “water bear” or a “moss piglet,” as previously reported by the Inquisitr.
The animal carcasses retrieved from the frozen depths also included the shell of a shrimp-like crustacean with legs still attached, as well as shells of diatoms — “photosynthetic algae that lived and died millions of years ago,” explains Nature.
This unexpected haul of minuscule creatures was the surprising result of a drilling expedition into one of Antarctica’s subglacial lakes, Lake Mercer. According to Gizmodo, this is one of the most isolated lakes on Earth. Located some 500 miles from the South Pole, the lake spans 160 square miles — twice the size of Manhattan — and is sealed by 0.6 miles of ice.
The ice seal was broken last month by the members of the Subglacial Antarctic Lakes Scientific Access (SALSA) project, who bore a small hole into the ice on December 26 and — for the first time in history — gained access to a lake that had remained undisturbed for millennia.
Signs of ancient life found in Lake Mercer, an Antarctic lake that has been undisturbed for thousands of years. https://t.co/7aNT2kv1yw— Nature News & Comment (@NatureNews) January 18, 2019
The goal of the SALSA project was to look for signs of life inside this pristine, remote ecosystem and find out what type of creatures dwell in the hidden subglacial habitat, Nature detailed in a previous report announcing the SALSA mission.
Their efforts have certainly paid off, although not in the way that the team expected. While the explorers were “hoping to see something alive,” which didn’t happen as of this writing, the expedition to Lake Mercer did, however, lead to a remarkable find. After boring through the Antarctic ice with a hot-water drill, the team managed to retrieve a small mud sample from the bottom of the lake on December 30. The sample was rushed to a microscope, which revealed the ancient critters hidden 3,200 feet deep under the ice.
Perhaps the most striking thing of all is that the tardigrade and the fungus found on the bottom of Lake Mercer seemed to be landlubbers, notes Nature.
“The eight-legged tardigrade resembles species known to inhabit damp soils. What looked like worms were actually the tendrils of a land-dwelling plant or fungus.”
The creatures are estimated to date back either 10,000 years or 120,000 years and are believed to have originated during a warming period.
“The researchers now think that the creatures inhabited ponds and streams in the Transantarctic Mountains, roughly 50 kilometers [31 miles] from Lake Mercer, during brief warm periods in which the glaciers receded — either in the past 10,000 years, or 120,000 years ago.”
After that time, ice returned to “these oases of animal life,” although how the critters ended up in Lake Mercer remains a mystery. Since the lake lies deep beneath the ice, it is unlikely that it could have fostered colonies of similar creatures given that no sunshine reaches these waters.
According to an expert brought in by SALSA to examine the organisms, the creatures looked like they’d been dead for thousands of years. SALSA project leader John Priscu, a lake ecologist at Montana State University in Bozeman, said that his team made sure that the ancient land animals were not brought into the lake by contaminated equipment.
“I’m pretty cautious about making claims,” he told Nature on January 3 during a satellite phone call.
The expedition is still ongoing and could yield even more tantalizing discoveries as it unravels the secrets of Lake Mercer — which has only been explored via radar until now.