Sea anemones are supposed to sit on the bottom of the ocean, using their basal disc (or adhesive foot) to rest on a coral reef or sand. So, imagine the surprise of geologists in Antarctica when they discovered a mass of sea anemones hanging upside from the underside of the Ross Ice Shelf like a village of wispy ghosts.
Sea anemones are supposed to sit on the bottom of the ocean, using their basal disc (or adhesive foot) to rest on a coral reef or sand. So, imagine the surprise of geologists in Antarctica when they discovered a mass of sea anemones hanging upside from the underside of the Ross Ice Shelf like a village of wispy ghosts. The researchers weren't even there to discover new life, but to learn about South Pole currents through the Antarctic Geological Drilling (ANDRILL) Program via a remotely-operated undersea robot.
"When we looked up at the bottom of the ice shelf, there they were," says Frank Rack, executive director of ANDRILL, who calls the discovery "total serendipity." The scientists have named the new upside down anemones Edwardsiella andrillae after the program. Named after the flower, anemones are actually predatory marine animals distantly related to corals and jellyfish.
In 2010, scientist deployed a robot known as the Submersible Capable of under-Ice Navigation and Imaging (SCINI) into the waters beneath the Ross Ice Shelf, the largest off the continent. The robot employed a hot water drill to melt an 850-foot hole through the ice shelf before being dropped into open water. But instead of surveying barren waters, the camera on the robot reveled "an unexpected and astonishing glimpse into this subsurface world, discovering an unusual and likely unique marine biological community dominated by anemones living inside burrows in the lower surface of the ice shelf," write the scientists in a new paper in PLOS ONE describing the species. In fact, the camera recorded tens-of-thousands of these never-before witnessed ice anemones.
Although the anemones shrunk back from the infiltrating robot, the researchers were able to collect a few specimens by stunning the anemones with a hot water cannon on the robot and transferring them to McMurdo Station.
"This is the first species of sea anemone reported to live in ice," the scientists write. "Previously described species of sea anemones from Antarctica are reported from hard or soft substrates, but always below the anchor ice."
In addition, this is the first time scientists have ever discovered anemones in the Edwardsiella genus (also known as burrowing anemones) near the continent. The bone-white, ghostly anemones are a few inches long when fully extended and sport 20 to 24 tentacles.
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Antarctica ice cave image via Shutterstock.