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Mount Erebus, elevation of 2,448 feet, is located on Ross Island. It is an active volcano in Antarctica.

Subglacial caves in Antarctica may be harboring unknown plants and animals, according to Australian researchers.

There are more than 15 volcanoes throughout Antarctica that are either known to be currently active or show evidence of recent activity. The steam generated from the volcanoes create hollowed out cave systems that may have hospitable environments, according to a new study published in Polar Biology.

Researchers from Australian National University analyzed soil samples from Mount Erebus, Mount Melbourne and Mount Rittman, as well as samples from nine subglacial cave sites surrounding Mount Erebus.

The samples from the caves showed traces of DNA from mosses, algae, anthropods and nematodes. Most of the DNA resembled plants and animals already known to exist in the rest of Antarctica, but some of the sequences couldn’t be fully identified, suggesting the possibility that species unknown to science may have lived, or still do live, in the subglacial caves.

Volcanic steam hollows out ice to form interconnected cave systems, and the researchers report that temperatures can reach as high as 25C (77F). Additionally, sunlight is able to penetrate deep within the cave from open entrances, or where overlying ice is thin.

"The results from this study give us a tantalizing glimpse of what might live beneath the ice in Antarctica – there might even be new species of animals and plants," said Ceridwen Fraser, lead researcher. "The next step is to go and have a really good look and see if we can find communities living beneath the ice in Antarctica."

The researchers noted that to date, biological studies of the Antarctic cave systems have been limited to assessments of fungal and microbiological diversity.

But there are many other volcanoes throughout Antarctica, meaning subglacial cave systems, and the life they harbor, could actually be quite common.

How interconnected these caves are, and even exactly how many there are, are still unknown.

According to the study, less than .3 percent of land is currently exposed on Antarctica. But those small patches of exposed terrain are home to a diverse group of plants and invertebrates.

“Our results highlight the importance of investigating these cave systems in greater detail – despite the field challenges associated with such an endeavor – to confirm the presence of living macrobiota,” the study authors wrote.

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