New Species of Sea Anemone Found in Antarctic Ice

 

A new species of sea anemone, Edwardsiella andrillae, anchored in the ice at the underside of the Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica. Red dots are 10 cm apart. Credit: Dr. Frank R. Rack, ANDRILL Science Management Office, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

In 2010, a team of scientists were studying ocean currents under Antarctica’s Ross Ice Sheet when they discovered something unexpected: a new species of sea anemones living in the ice, hanging upside down with their tentacles dangling into the cold water.

“They were everywhere–thousands of them–like a field of inverted flowers covering the bottom of the ice shelf,” says Frank Rack, a marine geologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the lead investigator for the mission.

The team was testing a new robot–a five-foot-long, torpedo-shaped, camera-equipped submersible, which they had lowered into a hole drilled through 260 meters of ice.

Although other sea anemones have been found in Antarctica, this species is the first reported to live in the ice.

 

Sea Anemone Specimen. Credit: Daly M, Rack F, Zook R (2013)

“We have no idea how they survive there,” said Marymegan Daly, a sea anemone expert at Ohio State University to whom some preserved specimen were sent for further analysis. “And we don’t know how they got there. They’re soft animals. Imagine trying to shove a water balloon into a wall of ice!”

The new species belongs to the genus Edwardsiidae. They were named Edwardsiella andrillae after the mission’s name (Antarctic Geological Drilling, or ANDRILL).

Sea anemones are very simple animals–they’re tiny, they have no organs, no brains. Yet they can survive under incredibly challenging conditions,” Daly adds. “They’ve been found in oceans all over the world, from coastal areas to the deepest trenches.”

Because the team wasn’t hunting for biological discoveries, they were not equipped to properly preserve the specimens for genetic analyses. Details about this new species were published for the first time last December in the journal PLOS ONE.

But the sea anemones weren’t the only life form spotted there. The underside was home to many other creatures, including fishes who swam upside down using the bottom of the ice shelf as sea floor, as well as polychaete worms and amphipods.

The robot’s camera also captured footage of a weird-looking, unidentified small creature, which used little appendages at the end of its body to swim around and hang onto the anemones. “We’re not sure what that is–maybe some sort of sea cucumber?” Rack said. They dubbed it the “eggroll.”

Implications for Astrobiology

An illustration of Europa and its subsurface ocean with Jupiter in the background. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon, had been considered one of the best possible sources of extraterrestrial life in our solar system. Scientists believe a global ocean of liquid water swirls beneath its icy crust.

“The ice shelves on Earth are a pretty good analog for Europa–places where we have complete darkness, very thick ice, and where the chemistry and the properties of the ice are strongly influenced by the ocean,” says Britney Schmidt a NASA scientists and assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Schmidt is part of the team that’s developing a new underwater robot for further Antarctic exploration.

“These technologies are enabling us to explore the Earth in ways we’ve never been able to before,” she says. “Part of our mission is to do great analog research here on Earth in order to enable this kind of exploration on Europa.”

 

 


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