Indian scientists discover new plant species in Antarctica

Edited By: Moohita Kaur Garg WION Web Team
New Delhi, India Updated: Jul 09, 2021, 12:29 AM(IST)

Bryum bharatiensis Photograph:( Twitter )

Story highlights

The discovery of the species marks India's first plant discovery on the continent in 40 years

A team of Indian scientists have discovered new plant species in Antarctica. A few years back, in 2017 this team of Polar biologists happened upon a species of moss while exploring the Ice-covered continent.

Bryum Bharatiensis is the name of the new species, given by these biologists from the Central University of Punjab in India. In addition to being the Hindu goddess of learning, Bharati is also the name of one of India's Antarctic research stations.

The identification process can be pretty laborious. It took the scientists five years to confirm that the species they stumbled upon is in fact a new discovery. Journal of Asia-Pacific Biodiversity published a peer-reviewed paper describing this discovery.

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The dark green species was found at Larsemann Hills, overlooking the Southern Ocean, by Professor Felix Bast during a six-month-long expedition led by Indian scientists. It was the 36th expedition to the continent by Indian scientists. The site is near Bharati, one of the world's most remote research stations.

In a landscape of rock and ice, "the big question was how does moss survive," says Professor Bast. Nitrogen is crucial for the growth of plants, in addition to potassium, phosphorus, sunlight, water, and with 99 per cent of Antarctica covered in ice, it is a baffling discovery.

In areas where monarch penguins breed in large numbers, this moss seemed to be more common, thriving on the flightless bird's poop which is rich in nitrogen. Since the manure does not decompose in this climate, that acts as an added boon. 

Is sunlight a factor? In the six months of winter when there is no sunlight and temperatures dip as low as -76°C, scientists still aren't certain how the plants manage to survive under thick snow.

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They think that during the colder months, moss is likely to dry up to the point that it is almost dormant, and then germinate again in September when sunlight returns. When the snow melts, the dried-up moss absorbs the water.

Scientists from India sequenced the DNA from plant samples after collecting them and examined its form in comparison to other plants for five years. In Antarctica, the land of extremes, more than 100 different types of moss have been identified so far.

During the expedition, the scientists noticed "alarming evidence" of climate change. Glaciers are melting, ice sheets contain crevasses, and melting ice sheets have glacial melting water lakes on them.

Prof. Bast noted that Antarctica is becoming greener, with temperate species of plants that could not previously survive on its frozen surface, now flourishing all over the place.

A leading scientist and Chancellor of the CUP, Prof Raghavendra Prasad Tiwari, says the finding that Antarctica is greening is disturbing.

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Several pathogenic microbes could emerge when the ice melts as a result of global warming, said Professor Prasad, "We don't know what lies beneath the thick ice sheets."

In the four decades since India established its first research station on the continent, this is the first discovery of a plant species.

Initially, the first station was set up in 1984, but it was abandoned in 1990 after being buried by ice. Two stations remain operational through the year - Maitri and Bharati established in 1989 and 2012 respectively.

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