Photosynthetic microbial mats forming large conical structures up to half a meter tall have been discovered by astrobiologists in Lake Untersee, Antarctica. This research is described in a forthcoming article in the journal Geobiology. Photo copyright: Dale T. Andersen 2011.
Lake Untersee is located at 71°20’S, 13°45’E in the Otto-von-Gruber-Gebirge (Gruber Mountains) of central Dronning Maud Land. The lake is 563 meters above sea level, with an area of 11.4 square kilometers and is the largest surface lake in East Antarctica.
During the expedition, three members of the field team, Dale Andersen (SETI Institute), Ian Hawes (University of Canterbury), and Chris McKay (NASA ARC) explored the lake beneath its 3 meter thick ice-cover and discovered the large conical structures that dominate the under-ice landscape.
To date, there have been no other reports of modern microbial mats forming such structures, which resemble a class of stromatolites termed large complex cones that were present on Earth approximately 3.4 billion years ago in the Pilbara (see Allwood et al. Nature, Vol 44, 2006).
Studies of these structures will help scientists interpret the record of life preserved in rocks and will hopefully provide new insights about the communities of microorganisms of Earth’s earliest biosphere.
Support for the multinational project was a mix of private and govt funds via the Tawani Foundation, NASA’s Astrobiology program, and Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI).