New species of Antarctic sea anemone could hint at alien life

A research robot out on a routine test inadvertently stumbled upon a never-before-seen species of sea anemone living upside down in Antarctic ice. It's a remarkable discovery that could hint at the kind of life that might be found in the subsurface oceans of Europa.

The tiny sea anemones were discovered by a cylindrical robot called SCINI (Submersible Capable of under Ice Navigation and Imaging). The bot, which is part of the National Science Foundation's ANDRILL Antarctic drilling program, was sent down a hole drilled through 885 feet (270 meters) of the Antarctic Ross Ice Shelf.

Almost immediately, SCINI detected signs of the all-new ecosystem, one containing the opaque-white, ethereal anemones, now named Edwardsiella andrillae. They're just 2.5-to-3 centimeters in size when contracted, and about four times longer when relaxed. Each of them have around 20-to-24 tentacles. The researchers aren't sure how the anemone anchor themselves to the ice, how they reproduce, or how they're able to withstand the frigid temperatures. Some tens of thousands of these anemones were seen clinging to the bottom of the ice layer.

New species of Antarctic sea anemone could hint at alien life

Most anemones are found on rocks or reefs, but this is the first known species to live exclusively off the ice.

"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," noted researcher Scott Borg in an NSF statement. "This goes to show how much more we have to learn about the Antarctic and how life there has adapted."

New species of Antarctic sea anemone could hint at alien life

In addition to the sea anemone, SCINI discovered fish that swim upside down (with the ice acting as a floor), polychaete worms, amphipods, and a bizarre (and still unidentified organism) the researchers are calling the "egroll;" it's shaped like a tiny cylinder that bumped along the ice among the anemones.

A future mission is now being prepared with the help from NASA, including a robot that can withstand greater depths. The space agency would like to use this research to inform a future expedition to Europa — an ice-covered world with subsurface oceans.

SCINI actually made this discovery back in 2010, but it was only made public last month. Read the entire study at PLoS One: "Edwardsiella andrillae, a New Species of Sea Anemone from Antarctic Ice." More at the NSF.

Image: Dr Frank R. Rack, ANDRILL Science Management Office, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.