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Life Might Exist in Mysterious Antarctic Caves

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Hidden beneath the surface of the coldest, driest, windiest continent lie mysterious caves – some so warm, you could comfortably wear a T-shirt within them.

Now, a team of scientists has revealed evidence that animals and plants might exist in these extensive cave systems that have been hollowed out around Mt Erebus on Antarctica’s Ross Island, the home of New Zealand’s Scott Base.

Forensic analyses of soil samples from these caves, carried out by an international team including Kiwis, have turned up intriguing traces of DNA from algae, mosses and small animals.

“It can be really warm inside the caves – up to 25C in some caves,” said Dr Ceridwen Fraser, of the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society.

There was also light near the cave mouths, and light filters deeper into some caves where the overlying ice was thin.

Most of the DNA found in the caves on Mt Erebus was similar to DNA from plants and animals – including mosses, algae and invertebrates – found elsewhere in Antarctica, but not all sequences could be fully identified.

“The results from this study give us a tantalising glimpse of what might live beneath the ice in Antarctica – there might even be new species of animals and plants,” Fraser said.

Another scientist involved in the project, Professor Laurie Connell from the University of Maine, said these intriguing DNA traces did not conclusively prove plants and animals were still living in the caves.

“The next steps will be to take a closer look at the caves and search for living organisms,” Connell said.

“If they exist, it opens the door to an exciting new world.”

Microbial ecologist Professor Craig Cary, director of the Waikato University-based International Centre for Terrestrial Antarctic Research, said previous research had found that diverse bacterial and fungal communities lived in Antarctica’s volcanic caves.

A view of Mt Erebus from a helicopter. Photo / File

A view of Mt Erebus from a helicopter. Photo / File

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