Delicate ice anemones, with an "eggroll" at the top left.
(Credit: Dr Frank R. Rack, ANDRILL Science Management Office, University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
A research robot deployed for its first ever routine test run discovered a new species of anemone growing upside down in the Antarctic ice.
A robot designed to study ocean currents accidentally discovered a new species of anemone living upside down rooted in ice — the only known anemone to do so.
The cylindrical robot, part of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) ANDRILL Antarctic drilling program, was sent down a hole drilled through the 270-metre-thick Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, equipped with cameras, in its very first engineering test. Early in the test it captured footage of an all-new ecosystem in the frigid waters.
"It is an absolutely astonishing discovery — and just how the sea anemones create and maintain burrows in the bottom of the ice shelf, while that surface is actively melting, remains an intriguing mystery," said NSF Antarctic Sciences Section head Scott Borg. "This goes to show how much more we have to learn about the Antarctic and how life there has adapted."
As well as the white anemones, which have been named Edwardsiella andrillae in honour of the program, the scientists also saw fish that swim upside down, with the ice acting as a floor; polychaete worms; amphipods; and a strange, as-yet unidentified organism they called "the eggroll", shaped like a cylinder 10 centimetres long by 2.5 centimetres wide, that bumped along the ice among the anemones.
The anemones themselves were only about 2.5 to 3 centimetres when contracted, and about four times longer when relaxed. Each anemone has around 20 to 24 tentacles — an outer ring of 12 to 16 and an inner ring of eight longer ones.
Because the team wasn't expecting to find a new creature, the expedition didn't have the necessary equipment for proper study. The scientists remain uncertain how the anemone anchors itself to the ice, how they reproduce and how they withstand the low temperatures.
Another expedition is now being prepared, with help from NASA, which hopes to use the research for its planned mission to Europa. The team is developing a robot that can withstand greater depths, and hope to return to Antarctica by 2015.
You can read more about the anemone online in the paper "Edwardsiella andrillae, a New Species of Sea Anemone from Antarctic Ice", published in PLOS One.