Researchers have found there may be something as big as 5 million square km living under Antarctica's icy surface.
The frozen continent is generally thought of as a hostile climate, with only the likes of penguins, seals and fish being able to survive there.
However, scientists have long observed blooms of photosynthetic algae that emerge in the warmer months, when Antarctica's seasonal ocean ice melts away.
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Until recently, it was believed that the algae only appeared in the summer as Antarctica's thick layer of packed ice would prevent any sunlight from getting through.
However, new research by a team from Brown University in the US and New Zealand's University of Auckland suggests there could be a swathe of it living permanently under the surface of the continent, Newsweek reported.
Christopher Horvat, who led the study, told the publication: "Finding these blooms helps challenge the paradigm that regions under sea ice are devoid of life, and introduces important new questions about the food webs that might lie under the ice in Antarctica.
"We think they could cover up to 5 million square km of the under-ice region in the Southern Ocean."
The team, whose research has since been published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, made the discovery using data collected from NASA's Earth surveillance satellites as well as on-site ocean floats.
The Southern Ocean's sea ice is made up of sheets of packed ice with small patches of open water in between.
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The researchers believe it is these areas of water that allow light to pass through even in the winter months, allowing the algae to photosynthesize all year round.
The ice itself is also thin enough to allow some light through – usually between three and ten feet thick, explained Huw Griffiths, a marine biogeographer with the British Antarctic Survey.
However, life has even been found on the sea floor, where there is no light at all.
"Most ice shelves are so thick that no light reaches the sea floor below," Griffiths said,
Last year, a team headed up by Griffiths found life on a boulder 3000 ft under the surface of the ocean, sheltered by an Antarctic ice shelf, on the sea floor.
"We know very little about life under Antarctica's floating ice shelves. Ice shelves cover around a third of the continental shelf—1.5 million square kilometers—but our knowledge is based on a handful of records from boreholes drilled through the ice shelves," he said.
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"These holes give us small snapshots of what lives on the seafloor and the water column, but the majority of what we know comes from short video clips and photographs covering a very small area.
"Current theories on what life could survive under ice shelves suggest that all life becomes less abundant as you move further away from open water and sunlight," he continued.
"Past studies have found some small mobile scavengers and predators, such as fish, worms, jellyfish or krill, in these habitats. Our study found the first ever record of a hard substrate—a boulder—community deep beneath an ice shelf, made up of probable filter-feeding animals such as sponges."
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