In a surprising discovery about where higher life can thrive, scientists found a shrimp-like creature and a jellyfish living 600-feet beneath a massive Antarctic ice sheet.
NASA scientists didn't think anything except perhaps a few microbes could exist in such a world where the sun doesn't shine. But they decided to check anyway. They drilled a hole in the ice, and lowered a video camera down.
They were stunned when the shrimp-like creature came swimming by and then parked itself on the camera's cable. Scientists also pulled up a tentacle they believe came from a foot-long jellyfish.
"We were operating on the presumption that nothing's there," said NASA ice scientist Robert Bindschadler, who will be presenting the initial findings and a two-minute video at an American Geophysical Union meeting Wednesday. "It was a shrimp you'd enjoy having on your plate."
"We were just gaga over it," he said of the 3-inch-long, orange being. Technically, it's not a shrimp. It's a Lyssianasid amphipod, which is distantly related to shrimp.
The video is likely to inspire experts to rethink what they know about life in harsh environments. And it has scientists considering that if shrimp-like creatures can live below 600-feet of Antarctic ice in subfreezing dark water, what about other hostile places? What about Europa, a frozen moon of Jupiter?
"They are looking at the equivalent of a drop of water in a swimming pool that you would expect nothing to be living in and they found not one animal but two," said biologist Stacy Kim of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in California, who joined the NASA team later. "We have no idea what's going on down there."
There is still some disagreement on whether the creatures actually live there. Microbiologist Cynan Ellis-Evans of the British Antarctic Survey said it's possible they swam in from far away and don't live there permanently.
But Kim, who is a co-author of the study, doubts it. The site in West Antarctica is at least 12 miles from open seas. She said it's unlikely that that they swam from great distances and just happened to be captured in the small area in which the team was looking.
Scientists were puzzled at what the creatures eat. While some microbes can make their own food out of chemicals in the ocean, complex life like the amphipod can't.
So how do they survive? That's the key question. "It's pretty amazing when you find a huge puzzle like that on a planet where we thought we know everything," Kim said.