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Biologists say the inadvertent discovery of sea life on a boulder underneath an Antarctic ice shelf challenges our understanding of how organisms can live in environments far from sunlight.

The team drilled through the 900-metre-thick Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf and dropped a camera down the hole in search of mud on the seabed. To their surprise, the camera revealed a boulder ringed by animals. Video footage appear to show 16 sponges, accompanied by 22 unidentified animals which could include barnacles. It is the first time such immobile life has been found beneath an Antarctic ice sheet.

“There’s all sorts of reasons they shouldn’t be there,” says Huw Griffiths at the British Antarctic Survey, who analysed the footage. He thinks the animals, which are likely filter feeders, survive on nutrients carried in the -2°C water. The conundrum is they are so far from obvious nutrient sources, given that the boulder is located 260 kilometres from the open water at the front of the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf where photosynthetic organisms can survive.

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