Ice Age Flora And Fauna May Have Relied On Volcanic Heat To Thrive
March 12, 2014

Ice Age Flora And Fauna May Have Relied On Volcanic Heat To Thrive

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Several types of plants and animals were able to survive ice ages of the past thanks to the heat and steam produced by volcanoes, according to research appearing in a recent edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Dr. Ceridwen Fraser of the Australian National University, Dr. Aleks Terauds from the Australian Antarctic Division and their colleagues said that their research has helped solve a longstanding mystery about how some species were able to survive in regions that were often isolated and covered by glaciers.

According to French news agency AFP, the researchers reviewed the records of several thousand types of Antarctic mosses, lichens and bugs that more than 100 experts had compiled over the course of several decades.

Professor Peter Convey, a terrestrial ecologist with the British Antarctic Survey said that as much as 60 percent of all invertebrate species found in the Antarctic region cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

“They have clearly not arrived on the continent recently, but must have been there for millions of years,” he explained in a statement Tuesday. “How they survived past ice ages – the most recent of which ended less than 20,000 years ago – has long puzzled scientists.”

The investigation revealed a startling pattern, according to Dr. Terauds: “The closer you get to volcanoes, the more species you find. This pattern supports our hypothesis that species have been expanding their ranges and gradually moving out from volcanic areas since the last ice age.”

As it turns out, the volcanoes helped keep those plants and animals from dying off during the extremely cold conditions – and while this particular study was centered on Antarctica, it is believed that the findings will also help climate scientists figure out how plants and animals survived these types of extreme conditions elsewhere.

“Volcanic steam can melt large ice caves under the glaciers, and it can be tens of degrees warmer in there than outside. Caves and warm steam fields would have been great places for species to hang out during ice ages,” Dr Fraser said. “We can learn a lot from looking at the impacts of past climate change as we try to deal with the accelerated change that humans are now causing.”

There are as many as 16 volcanoes in Antarctica that have remained active since the last ice age roughly 20,000 years ago, according to UPI. While volcanoes are often looked upon as destructive forces that wipe out life, Dr. Fraser and his colleagues believe that they might actually help promote biodiversity – both in the Earth’s southernmost continent and elsewhere.

Furthermore, the findings could help shed new light on how creatures respond to global warming, and could help guide conservation efforts in the region. As Professor Steven Chown of Monash University put it, “Knowing where the ‘hotspots’ of diversity are will help us to protect them as human-induced environmental changes continue to affect Antarctica.”