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A photo of a new species of anemones in Antarctica.

In an underwater image, Edwardsiella andrillae anemones protrude from the bottom surface of the Ross Ice Shelf. (For scale, the two red dots are 10 centimeters apart.)

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF FRANK RACK, ANDRILL SCIENCE MANAGEMENT OFFICE, UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA-LINCOLN

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic

Published January 17, 2014

Where else would a species that spends its life upside down live but in the Southern Hemisphere? The newly discovered Antarctic sea anemone resides in burrows dug into the bottom of sea ice in the Ross Sea, where it lives a mysterious existence.

The discoverers are unsure of what it eats, how it reproduces, or even how the anemone—an opaque-white creature with a stringy body topped by delicate-looking tentacles—excavates its burrows. But they are sure that it's a species new to science, and they describe it in a recently published study in the journal PLOS ONE.

The study authors, led by Ohio State's Marymegan Daly, also write that the new species is the first anemone found to live in sea ice, rather than stuck to hard surfaces like rocks or reefs. The find points to the hardiness and variety of life, even under the frigid ice shelves of Antarctica.

Discovery of the new anemone, dubbed Edwardsiella andrillae, came by accident during environmental surveys intended to test underwater equipment, including a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), said study co-author Frank Rack, a marine geologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The ROV that Rack and his colleagues wanted to test is rated to a depth of 984 feet (300 meters). It had traveled through ice a couple of meters thick before, said Rack, but the area they were in had ice up to 853 feet (260 meters) thick.

ROV pilots wanted to make sure the vehicle could maneuver properly and control its buoyancy under that much ice before Rack and colleagues used it for a future seafloor drilling project. (Explore Antarctica with an interactive map.)

That's when the discovery came.

Fuzzy Ice

A camera on a rope dropped down the hole Rack and colleagues had drilled through the ice revealed a "flat, uninteresting" surface, he said. "But when we went down with the ROV and its camera systems, the [underside of the] ice looked fuzzy."

Upon closer inspection, the researchers saw tentacles sticking out of the ice. "As the [ROV] approached the anemones, they would pull back into their hole," Rack recalled. "It was amazing."

Although Rack and colleagues aren't biologists, "we knew what we had stumbled on and it was very cool," Rack said.

Bad weather prevented staff at the nearby McMurdo Station from sending collecting supplies out to the ROV testing group. (See "South Pole Expeditions Then and Now: How Does Their Food and Gear Compare?")

But they were able to jury-rig a vacuum tube out of a spare ROV thruster and a coffee filter to suck up 20 to 30 anemones.

Many of the animals clung tenaciously to their frigid homes, so researchers had to stun them with some warm water before they could collect the invertebrates.

Rack and colleagues were unable to properly preserve the animals for DNA analysis. But with sea anemones, DNA is not always definitive when identifying species, Rack said. "The taxonomy [or physical characteristics] is what's really needed for species identification."

Photo of the Edwarsiella sea anemone up close.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF FRANK RACK, ANDRILL SCIENCE MANAGEMENT OFFICE, UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA-LINCOLN
This close-up view shows the Edwardsiella andrillae sea anemone, which measures less than 1 inch in length.

The opaque anemones ranged from 0.63 to 0.79 inches (16 to 20 millimeters) in length. And they appeared to glow an orange color when illuminated by the ROV's lights, said Rack. But he's unsure if that glow is due to the food the animals eat, or if they themselves are generating it.

A New Perspective

The pilots were able to do all this while flying their ROV upside down. Normally used for seafloor surveys, the underwater robot came equipped with two cameras—one facing down and a second facing forward.

The only way to document the anemones, along with other organisms on the underside of the ice like small crustaceans and fish that swim upside down, was to fly the vehicle with the cameras pointing at the bottom of the sea ice.

Rack and colleagues are in the midst of writing another grant proposal to the U.S. National Science Foundation to go back, this time with a group of biologists. Rack hopes to kill two birds with one trip: completing his drilling project and getting more information about this new species of sea anemone.

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

18 comments
Mark Weisberger
Mark Weisberger

If we wanted to make a planet with life, We would need three things: 1. A planet with the proper surface temperature and size. 2. Water (To avoid argument, let's assume that the water isn't already there). 3. Life. Let's try it. Such a planet can be found. It will probably be about 200 trillion miles away (or about 30 light years). Water can be found in comets, which are made of ice (and other things). So we just need to shoot a comet into a planet and we will have a planet with water. Right? But what about life? Our new habitable planet will be much too far away for us to get life onto it. Or will it? The fastest comet travels at 300 miles per second. At this speed, it would take a comet 600 billion seconds or 20,000 years to arrive at the planet. This is a seemingly unrealistic amount of time. Enter the Antarctic Sea Anemone. Can we put some of these in the comet before we shoot it at the planet? No. Even if they reproduce along the trip successfully and they survive, they will likely die from impact when the comet hits the planet. BUT, can we send a big comet made of ice first, then later smaller comets with the Antarctic Sea Anemones in them, with the hope that the later comets will land in the new seas on the planet? Please tell me if this is plausible. The idea of comets introducing water to planets has existed a long time, but I believe the idea of putting the Antarctic Sea Anemone's into the comets is new. Since they live in ice. Would it work?

Raymond Fillimchuk
Raymond Fillimchuk

DO THEY REALIZE THERE UPSIDE DOWN,WEVE DISCOVERED ICE WORMS WHY WOULD WE BE SO SHOCKED BY ICE ANENOMES,THE SIMPLER THE ORGANISM THE LESS IT NEEDS,IVE WITNESSED UPSIDE DOWN ANENOMES IN CORRAL CAVES SNORKELLING IN THE CORN ISLANDS OF NICARAGUA,I DIDN T FIND IT ALL THAT SHOCKING AND THEY DIDN T SEEM ALL THAT CONCERNED ABOUT IT EITHER!!!

Iphigenia Pavlovic
Iphigenia Pavlovic

Wow! This is incredibly rare. Sea anemones basically look like flowers and plants at the same time. I must agree, I think they are white in color and with delicate tentacles. In fact , they settle exclusively and are restricted to specific host sea .

Eugene Whocares
Eugene Whocares

I must be blind or something but I only see one red dot. In the top right quadrant (the bottom left quad of that one) if you were to divide the image into four... where's the other one?

pamela letstalkaboutcorsica
pamela letstalkaboutcorsica

the sea is not finished unveiling her mysteries .. I dare say, we only know of a fraction of what is really down there

Andrea Back
Andrea Back

I don't always discover a new species but when I do I kill some of them in the interest of science :/

Coffeebud Hong
Coffeebud Hong

hope it will still be there 100 years down the road without destruction by human !

jo fidler
jo fidler

save the polar caps, save the anenome, save u 

Frank Rack
Frank Rack

The sea anemones are living in the ice at the base of the Ross Ice Shelf. This is not sea ice. The Ross Ice Shelf is a floating extension of thick ice that extends from the grounding zone of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to the ice shelf front, about 600 miles to the north of the grounding line. The ice thickness decreases from about 800 meters thick at the grounding zone to about 230 meters thick at the front of the ice shelf. By comparison, sea ice is only a few meters thick.

Laura McAvoy
Laura McAvoy

@Eugene Whocares  They took the image from the original paper and appeared to have cropped out part of the image. If you look at the original paper by Daly et al you will see a clearer image :)

Carol Thomas
Carol Thomas

@Bryan Jerry Tangub@Frank Rackmuppets, did you happened to see...
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF FRANK RACK, ANDRILL SCIENCE MANAGEMENT OFFICE, UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA-LINCOLN  im thinking he didnt google or wiki.. but you two did.. thank you Frank


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