Evidence of plant and animal communities at exposed and subglacial (cave) geothermal sites in Antarctica


Geothermal areas, such as volcanoes, might have acted as glacial microrefugia for a wide range of species. The heavily glaciated but volcanically active Antarctic continent presents an ideal system for assessing this hypothesis. Ice-free terrain around volcanoes in Antarctica is, however, often restricted to small patches, whereas subglacial cave systems, formed by vented volcanic steam, can be extensive and interconnected. No observations of macrobiota have yet been made for subglacial geothermal environments in Antarctica, but these organisms are often patchily distributed and can be difficult to find. We carried out metabarcoding (eDNA) analyses of soil samples taken from exposed areas on three volcanoes in Victoria Land, and subglacial caves on Mount Erebus. We found evidence of numerous eukaryotic groups, including mosses, algae, arthropods, oligochaetes and nematodes, at both exposed and subglacial sites. Our findings support the notion that geothermal areas—including subglacial environments—can nurture biodiversity in glaciated regions.

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Fig. 1

Photograph credits: Hubert Staudigel, Rebecca Williams


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Thanks to Jeroen Nederlof, Roanna Richards-Babbage, Leslie Astbury and Georgia Wakerley for laboratory assistance and advice, and Antarctica New Zealand for logistical support. CIF was funded by an ARC DECRA (DE140101715). CKL and SCC were supported by the New Zealand Marsden Fund (UOW0802 & UOW1003), the National Science Foundation (ANT 0739648) and the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment (UOWX1401).

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Correspondence to Ceridwen I. Fraser.

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Fraser, C.I., Connell, L., Lee, C.K. et al. Evidence of plant and animal communities at exposed and subglacial (cave) geothermal sites in Antarctica. Polar Biol 41, 417–421 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-017-2198-9

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  • Volcano
  • Polar
  • Environmental DNA eDNA
  • Refugia
  • Subglacial