Thousands of species found in lake under Antarctic ice

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Thousands Of Species Found In Lake Under Antarctic Ice

A half-mile of ice isn't enough to suffocate life. A team of scientists who drilled into one of Antarctica's subglacial lakes last year says the lake is pretty well-packed with living things.

The U.S.-based team used a sterile hot water drill to reach and collect samples from Lake Whillans, one of Antarctica's roughly 400 lakes, which are kept liquid by pressure, friction and the planet's heat.

Shortly afterward, they announced they'd found life in the lake water, and after a year and a half of study, they've confirmed nearly 4,000 species, many of them completely new.

Life existing at all in a lake that hasn't gotten any sunlight in more than 100,000 years is definitely impressive. As you can probably guess, energy is scarce beneath the ice.

But the single-celled organisms that live there have a creative trick: they eat the rock to survive, having found ways to use minerals like iron and ammonium for energy, similar to how microbes on the bottom of the deepest oceans get by.

Science writers are calling this a first: "the first sample ever retrieved directly from a subglacial lake", "the first organisms ever retrieved from a subglacial Antarctic lake." But that depends on who you ask.

A Russian team collected samples from Lake Vostok shortly before the U.S. team got to Lake Whillans. They published findings of life under the ice a year ago, but many scientists said their drilling technique risked contamination.

Now it's definitive: life can survive under Antarctica's ice sheets, far away from sunlight. And that has some big implications.

Saturn's moon Enceladus and Jupiter's moon Europa are both potential candidates for alien life. The findings in Antarctica are more evidence that life could thrive under the moons' ice crusts.

The team hopes to return to Lake Whillans this winter to take more samples and see if they can find more species, including, perhaps, some small animals.

This video contains images from NASA.

Click through for photos of Anarctica
12 PHOTOS
Antarctica ice and glacial melting
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Thousands of species found in lake under Antarctic ice
Antarctica is overall accumulating ice, but parts have increased ice loss in last decades: https://t.co/j7x9idUdM8 https://t.co/VMNbV1LB3m
ANTARCTICA - JUNE 15: Iceberg near the Ukrainian Station Akademik Vernadsky, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
On Sept. 19, 2014, the five-day average of Antarctic sea ice extent exceeded 20 million square kilometers for the first time since 1979, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. The red line shows the average maximum extent from 1979-2014. (NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio/Cindy Starr)
Although the Amundsen Sea region is only a fraction of the whole West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the region contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by 4 feet (1.2 meters).
True colour satellite image of the Earth centred on the South Pole with cloud coverage, during winter solstice at 6 a.m GMT. This image in orthographic projection was compiled from data acquired by LANDSAT 5 & 7 satellites., Globe Centred On The South Pole, True Colour Satellite Image (Photo by Planet Observer/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
BAILEY HEAD, DECEPTION ISLAND, ANARCTICA - DECEMBER 17, 2010: This is a satellite image closeup view of Bailey Head, Deception Island, Antarctica collected on December 17, 2010. (Photo DigitalGlobe/ScapeWare3d via Getty Images)
NBC NEWS -- Antarctica 2013 -- Pictured: Gerlache strait Antarctica February 13, 2013 -- (Photo by: Kerry Sanders/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
This image obtained from NASA 15 May 2007 shows what a team of NASA and university scientists say 15 May 2007 is clear evidence that extensive areas of snow melted in west Antarctica (left) in January 2005 in response to warm temperatures. This was the first widespread Antarctic melting ever detected with NASA's QuikScat satellite and the most significant melt observed using satellites during the past three decades. Combined, the affected regions encompassed an area as big as California. The NASA statement described the findings as 'the most significant melt observed using satellites during the past three decades.' (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
GLACIER CALVING, ANTARCTICA - JANUARY 27, 2012: This is a satellite image of a glacier calving in Antarctica, collected on January 27, 2012. (Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images)
Earth. True colour satellite image of the Earth, centred on Antarctica. The South Pole is at centre. Antarctica is a frozen continent, permanently covered in snow and ice. Surrounding Antarctica are the waters of the Southern Ocean, mixing with the Atlantic Ocean (upper centre), the Pacific Ocean (lower left) and the Indian Ocean (centre right). Around the edge of the hemisphere is New Zealand (lower centre), Australia (lower right), and the southern parts of Africa (upper right, the island of Madagascar is also seen) and South America (upper left). The image used data from LANDSAT 5 & 7 satellites. Print size 42x42cm., Globe South Pole, True Colour Satellite Image (Photo by Planet Observer/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
BAILEY HEAD, DECEPTION ISLAND, ANARCTICA - DECEMBER 17, 2010: This is a satellite image closeup view of Bailey Head, Deception Island, Antarctica collected on December 17, 2010. (Photo DigitalGlobe/ScapeWare3d via Getty Images)
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