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Small creatures hang upside down.
Photo Credit: University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Sea anemones hang out on the bottom of the Ross Ice Shelf. The new species was discovered in 2010 by researchers using a camera-equipped robot to survey the ice shelf for a project to drill into the seafloor below.

On the flip side

New species of sea anemone found underneath Ross Ice Shelf

National Science Foundation External U.S. government site-funded researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln External Non-U.S. government site, while using a camera-equipped robot to survey the area under Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf External U.S. government site, unexpectedly discovered a new species of small sea anemones that were burrowed into the ice, their tentacles protruding into the frigid water like flowers from a ceiling.

"The pictures blew my mind, it was really an amazing find," said Marymegan Daly External Non-U.S. government site, a specialist in sea anemones at Ohio State University External Non-U.S. government site, who studied the specimens retrieved by scientists and engineers with the Antarctic Geological Drilling (ANDRILL) External Non-U.S. government site program's Coulman High project.

The team made the astonishing discovery of thousands upon thousands of the small anemones.

The new species, discovered in late December 2010, was publicly identified for the first time in an article published last month in PLOS ONE, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal published by the Public Library of Science External Non-U.S. government site.

Though other sea anemones have been found in Antarctica, the newly discovered species is the first reported to live in ice. They also live upside down, hanging from the ice, compared to other sea anemones that live on or in the seafloor.

The white anemones have been named Edwardsiella andrillae, in honor of the ANDRILL program.

Scott Borg, who heads the Antarctic Sciences Section External U.S. government site in NSF's Division of Polar Programs External U.S. government site, noted that the discovery indicates how much remains both unknown and unexplored by scientists, even after more than 50 years of active U.S. research on the southernmost continent

"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," he said. "This goes to show how much more we have to learn about the Antarctic and how life there has adapted."

The discovery was "total serendipity," said Frank Rack External Non-U.S. government site, executive director of the ANDRILL Science Management Office at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "When we looked up at the bottom of the ice shelf, there they were."

Scientists had lowered the robot – a 4.5-foot cylinder equipped with two cameras, a side-mounted lateral camera and a forward-looking camera with a fish-eye lens – into a hole bored through the 270-meter-thick shelf of ice that extends about 1,000 kilometers northward from the grounding zone of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet into the Ross Sea.

Their research mission, funded by NSF with support from the New Zealand Foundation for Research, was to learn more about the ocean currents beneath the ice shelf to provide environmental data for modeling the behavior of the ANDRILL drill string, a length of pipe extending through the water column and into the sea floor through which drilling fluids are circulated and core samples are retrieved. [See previous article — On the ice edge: ANDRILL gathers data to drill through moving ice shelf into ancient seafloor sediments.]

They didn't expect to discover any organisms living in the ice, and surely not an entirely new species.

For more on the story, see the NSF press release External U.S. government site.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs