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  • Can you guess what this is?

  • What if I told you there's a place where the creatures are made of glass?

  • Or that there are life-forms that are invisible to us,

  • but astronauts see them all the time?

  • These invisible glass creatures aren't aliens on a faraway exoplanet.

  • They're diatoms:

  • photosynthetic, single-celled algae responsible for producing oxygen

  • and helping seed clouds on a planetary scale

  • and with intricately sculpted, geometric exoskeletons made of --

  • yeah, glass.

  • You can see them in swirls of ocean-surface colors from space.

  • And when they die,

  • their glass houses sink to the depths of the oceans,

  • taking carbon out of the air

  • and with them to the grave,

  • accounting for a significant amount of carbon sequestration in the oceans.

  • We live on an alien planet.

  • There is so much weird life here on Earth to study,

  • and so much of it lives at the edges of our world,

  • of our sight and of our understanding.

  • One of those edges is Antarctica.

  • Typically, when we think about Antarctica,

  • we think of a place that's barren and lifeless ...

  • except for a few penguins.

  • But Antarctica should instead be known as a polar oasis of life,

  • host to countless creatures that are utterly fascinating.

  • So why haven't we seen them on the latest nature documentary?

  • Well, they lurk beneath the snow and ice,

  • virtually invisible to us.

  • They're microbes:

  • tiny plants and animals living embedded inside of glaciers,

  • underneath the sea ice

  • and swimming in subglacial ponds.

  • And they're no less charismatic than any of the megafauna

  • that you're used to seeing in a nature documentary.

  • But how do you compel people to explore what they can't see?

  • I recently led a five-week expedition to Antarctica

  • to essentially become a wildlife filmmaker at the microbial scale.

  • With 185 pounds of gear,

  • I boarded a military aircraft

  • and brought microscopes into the field

  • to film and investigate these microscopic extremophiles,

  • so that we can become more familiar with a poorly understood ecosystem

  • that we live with here on Earth.

  • To film these invisible creatures in action,

  • I needed to see where they call home --

  • I needed to venture under the ice.

  • Every year, the sea ice nearly doubles the entire size of Antarctica.

  • To get a glimpse below the nine-feet-thick ice,

  • I climbed down a long, metal tube inserted into the sea ice

  • to witness a hidden ecosystem full of life,

  • while being suspended between the seafloor and the illuminated ceiling of ice.

  • Here's what that looked like from the outside.

  • It was just absolutely magical.

  • Some of the critters I found were delightful things like seed shrimp

  • and many more beautiful, geometric diatoms.

  • I then went farther afield to camp out in the Dry Valleys

  • for a couple of weeks.

  • 98 percent of Antarctica is covered with ice

  • and the Dry Valleys are the largest area of Antarctica where you can actually see

  • what the continent itself looks like underneath all of it.

  • I sampled bacteria at Blood Falls,

  • a natural phenomenon of a subglacial pond spurting out iron oxide

  • that was thought to be utterly lifeless until a little more than a decade ago.

  • And I hiked up a glacier to drill down into it,

  • revealing countless, hardcore critters living their best lives

  • while embedded inside layers of ice.

  • Known as cryoconite holes,

  • they form when tiny pieces of darkly colored dirt

  • get blown onto the glacier

  • and begin to melt down into soupy holes that then freeze over,

  • preserving hundreds of dirt pucks inside the glacier,

  • like little island universes

  • each with its own unique ecosystem.

  • Some of the critters I found you may recognize,

  • like this adorable tardigrade --

  • I absolutely love them,

  • they're like little gummy bears with claws.

  • Also known as a water bear,

  • they're famous for possessing superpowers

  • that allow them to survive in extreme conditions,

  • including the vacuum of space.

  • But you don't need to travel to space or even Antarctica to find them.

  • They live in moss all over this planet,

  • from sidewalk cracks to parks.

  • You likely walk right by tons of these invisible animals every day.

  • Others may look familiar,

  • but be stranger still, like nematodes.

  • Not a snake nor an earthworm,

  • nematodes are a creature all of their own.

  • They can't regenerate like an earthworm or crawl like a snake,

  • but they have tiny, dagger-like needles inside their mouths

  • that some of them use to spearfish their prey and suck out the insides.

  • For every single human on this planet,

  • there exist 57 billion nematodes.

  • And some of the critters you may not recognize at all

  • but live out equally fascinating lives,

  • such as rotifers with amazing crowns that turn into Roomba-like mouths,

  • ciliates with digestive systems so transparent that it's almost TMI,

  • and cyanobacteria that look like party confetti exploded all over a petri dish.

  • A lot of times what we see in popular media

  • are scanning electron microscope images of microorganisms

  • looking like scary monsters.

  • Without seeing them move their lives remain elusive to us

  • despite them living nearly everywhere we step outside.

  • What's their daily life like?

  • How do they interact with their environment?

  • If you only ever saw a photo of a penguin at a zoo,

  • but you never saw one waddle around and then glide over ice,

  • you wouldn't fully understand penguins.

  • By seeing microcreatures in motion,

  • we gain better insights into the lives of the otherwise invisible.

  • Without documenting the invisible life in Antarctica and our own backyards,

  • we don't understand just how many creatures we share our world with.

  • And that means we don't yet have the full picture

  • of our weird and whimsical home planet.

  • Thank you.

Can you guess what this is?

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B2 antarctica invisible sea ice glacier ecosystem life

The invisible life hidden beneath Antarctica's ice | Ariel Waldman

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    林宜悉 posted on 2020/10/30
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