Suppose you’re standing on a glacier in Antarctica, twelve miles (19 km) from the sea, and you drill a hole in the ice to get a core sample. Down about 600 feet (180 meters), you hit a little bit of water, and you think, “It’s unfrozen water. Could be something living in this – a microbe maybe. Probably nothing, but….” Then you notice something hanging onto the cable attached to the underwater camera. It’s a shrimp, or at least it looks like one. About 3 inches long, orange; it’s no microbe. It’s a higher life form – living in the dark, in water below the freezing temperature, beneath 600 feet of ice. If you’re a biologist, you freak out.
This actually happened to a team from NASA, no less. The U.S. space agency doesn’t just look for life in outer space. There are some extreme forms of life on this planet. They’re called extremophiles, things that live in extreme environments such as volcanic vents deep in the ocean, pools of near boiling water, inside rocks, and now hundreds of feet under a glacier in Antarctica. Typically such life is bacterial or some kind of microbe. This wasn’t. The “shrimp” turned out to be a Lyssiansid amphipod, a crustacean distantly related to shrimp and relative to the freshwater scud. The team also pulled out of the core-hole a piece of jellyfish tentacle.
Reality check: The biologists don’t know what’s going on down under that glacier. They talked about the possibility of some species swimming into the location from the sea, possibly on a seasonal or temporary basis; but twelve miles from the sea, under a glacier? Seems unlikely; but they don’t know for sure. So obviously, there will be more holes drilled and a lot more learning to do. Ain’t science wonderful?
It is if you’re an astrobiologist, because just such extreme cases of ‘life finding a way’ give you hope that elsewhere in the universe and especially in our own Solar System, under the ice of Europa, a moon of Jupiter, or Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, there might be something similar in water we know to exist there.