With so much attention focused on space exploration, it can sometimes be easy to forget that there is plenty of wonder and mystery left here on the pale blue dot. Recent events show that there is still much in the natural world that science cannot fully explain or that is beyond the scope of our technological capabilities to investigate. Aside from anomalous (or seemingly anomalous) phenomena, new methods of exploration including robotic vehicles are revealing entirely new ecosystems for humankind to discover. Researchers at Australia’s National University have announced the possible discovery of one such unexplored frontier this week, and it’s in a place you might not expect.
According to their research, the scientists believe that a whole host of unknown plant and animal life might live in subterranean ice caves surrounding Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano on Earth. On a recent expedition, Dr. Ceridwen Fraser from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society led a team of scientists to the base of Mount Erebus to collect soil samples from within hollow cave systems hollowed out by volcanic steam. The soil samples were found to contain DNA similar to DNA from known plant and animal species; however, the exact identity of these species could not be identified.
ANU’s Dr. Fraser, who led the research, says this study is only the tip of the iceberg and that the temperatures in the caves is definitely conducive to sustaining life:
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. It can be really warm inside the caves – up to 25 degrees Celsius in some caves. You could wear a t-shirt in there and be pretty comfortable. There’s light near the cave mouths, and light filters deeper into some caves where the overlying ice is thin.
With the way climate change is going, however, it might not be too long before these icy secrets are laid bare for the world to discover. How bittersweet that would be – discovering virgin ecosystems full of strange new lifeforms just as the waters begin take our cities back. Totally worth it.