(CN) — Strange alien life has been discovered, not in a galaxy far, far away, but in the depths of the Antarctic ice shelves on Earth.
In a study released this week in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, explorers detailed their findings of unique creatures living half a mile beneath the Filchner-Ronne ice shelf in the Weddell Sea, described by historian Thomas Henry as “the most treacherous” place on Earth.
What the expedition discovered was the existence of stationary animals attached to a boulder found on the sea floor, much like sponges.
"This discovery is one of those fortunate accidents that pushes ideas in a different direction and shows us that Antarctic marine life is incredibly special and amazingly adapted to a frozen world," said biogeographer and lead author, Dr Huw Griffiths of British Antarctic Survey in a statement.
Griffiths said the newly uncovered creatures bring up a host of new puzzles for scientists to solve.
"Our discovery raises so many more questions than it answers, such as how did they get there?” he said. “What are they eating? How long have they been there? How common are these boulders covered in life? Are these the same species as we see outside the ice shelf or are they new species? And what would happen to these communities if the ice shelf collapsed?"
Deep sea life in the floating Antarctic ice shelves is one of the few unexplored areas scientists have been eager to delve into. Although they cover over half a square mile, researchers have only studied life in the habitat through eight boreholes.
Prevailing scientific theories posit that undersea life is less abundant the further away it is from sunlight and open water. While some small predators have been found in such habitats, scientists thought filter feeding organisms like krill and forage fish would not survive.
That is until Griffiths’ team uncovered a boulder at the bottom of the dark sea, covered with strange organisms.
Griffiths said more research is needed to uncover the secrets of these newly discovered creatures, which may be difficult due to increasing global temperatures collapsing the ice shelves.
"To answer our questions we will have to find a way of getting up close with these animals and their environment — and that's under 900 meters of ice, 260km away from the ships where our labs are," Griffiths said. "This means that as polar scientists, we are going to have to find new and innovative ways to study them and answer all the new questions we have."
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.