Antarctic ice age survival story: life seeking ice-free refuges imitates art in Ice Age, the movie
Antarctica is an icy place today, but the ice extended even further during past ice ages. The question of how and where life survived on land in the icy continent, through the ages, has long puzzled biologists.
Ever since the first expeditions to Antarctica, the persistence of life in this inhospitable environment has remained a mystery. Until now.
We assembled data to test our theory of how life survived previous ice ages. We argue that life forms including invertebrates, vertebrates and plants persisted by retreating to numerous ice-free areas, called nunataks, that were not buried by advancing glaciers.
Then when Antarctica gradually warmed up again, life expanded from these nunatak refuges to repopulate larger ice-free areas. Our approach explains the uneven distribution of Antarctic terrestrial life, and identifies new research priorities to test our theory further.
The coming age of ice
For many, the term “Ice Age” conjures up memories of the animated adventures of Manny, Sid and Diego (and don’t forget that squirrel-rat, Scrat!) trying to escape the advancing ice.
There may be some truth to this story. The idea of a mammoth, sloth, sabretooth tiger (and pesky humans) migrating south for warmer climes is becoming well known in the Northern Hemisphere. And research published this month suggests early humans sat out the last ice age in the ice-free refuges of southern Europe.
But in Antarctica, land-loving life forms had nowhere to go. Or so it seemed, until now.
As scientists began to learn more about life in Antarctica, they began to consider the possibility of survival in ice-free refuges. But there was a problem. Any ice-free land in coastal regions, where life exists today, would have surely been consumed by the expanding ice. So how did life survive?
Unusual ice-free refuges
Using evidence from the biology and geology of Antarctica, we describe how ice-free refuges (nunataks) could have provided respite for coastal species.
We discounted previous research suggesting geothermal sites provided sufficient ice-free refuges on the coast. That’s because these would have been short-lived – compared to an ice age lasting around 100,000 years – and too few in number to explain the survival of life on the continent today.
We provide the first testable evidence-based hypothesis for the existence of life on continental Antarctica for millions of years. And we achieved this using the most well-known of all Antarctic invertebrates, a small creature that inhabits ice-free land year-round: springtails.
Springtails are an important contributor to soil health globally. They were among the first animals collected during early expeditions to the Antarctic Peninsula and the northern coast of Victoria Land from 1897-1900.
We collated a database of distribution records for Antarctic springtails from these first discoveries more than a century ago to the present.
The Conversation Media Group Ltd
March 22, 2023
Cyrille D’Hease, Author provided (no reuse)