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New species found in West Coast glaciers

Most animals don’t survive in the extreme environments of volcanoes, ocean trenches or mountain glaciers, yet ice on the West Coast of New Zealand is home to a unique set of animals. What’s more, recent research has remarkably identified four different invertebrates surviving in this inhospitable environment that are not found on any other glaciers in the world.


Arthropoda (invertebrate with exoskeleton, a segmented body and paired jointed appendages)

The significant finding has bought to light an astonishing, undiscovered and unique ecosystem with the New Zealand maritime glaciers. At least 12 undescribed species of five different macroinvertebrate types are thriving in the niche habitat within the high elevation, climate-threatened glaciers on the Southern Alps.

These animal phyla were found at the Fox, Franz Joseph and Whataroa Glaciers within the ice itself - that is under snow in the compaction zone rather than meltwater, and high in the Alps.


Rotifera (microscopic “wheel animal”)

All the species have independently adapted to life in an extreme environment; some have persisted from the ice age.

The work was carried out by Daniel Shain and Anthony Geneva from the State University of New Jersey, along with Phillip Novis from Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research and Krzysztof Zawierucha (Department of Animal Taxonomy and Ecology, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poland). Professor Shain, an expert in the adaption of glacier worms, has been in New Zealand to look at what animal life existed in the West Coast glaciers, which are unusual given the area’s climate, land and proximity to rich sources of biodiversity in the lower rainforest.


Tardigrada (eight-legged segmented invertebrate) (water bear or moss piglet)

Globally, only the Annelida and Rotifera species are known to exist in ice. The Annelida ice worm was discovered in North America in the 1800s, and more recently two species of Rotifera were noted in Iceland. The research team discovered that Arthropoda, Nematoda, Platyhelminthes and Tardigrada, as well as Rotifera, are colonising microenvironments within the three West Coast glaciers.

DNA was extracted from individual macroinvertebrates from ice samples taken at three glaciers in 2020. The DNA sequences then provided Genomics Aotearoa Director Peter Dearden and Andrew Cridge at the University of Otago with a rich set of data to analyse. Professor Dearden said the surprising discovery presents an exciting opportunity to understand the origins and adaption of these animals before the glaciers melt.


Nematoda (roundworm)

“The findings identify not only an atypical biodiversity hotspot but also highlight the adaptive nature of macroinvertebrates,” he said. “The West Coast glaciers originally descended from the alps, through rainforest to the sea, which suggests this is how the invertebrates were able to colonise the ice and adapt.”

“We need to find out so much more – we don’t even know what food they need to survive, nor if these new species are comparable to animal diversity in other glaciers around the world. We are hoping understanding the genomics of these microorganisms will help to monitor and understand the wider effects of global warming on glaciers.”


Platyhelminthes (flatworm)


Five animal phyla in glacier ice reveal unprecedented biodiversity in New Zealand's Southern Alps
Daniel Shain, Philip Novis, Andrew Cridge, Krzysztof Zawierucha, Anthony Geneva, Peter Dearden
Scientific Reports, 11, 3898, 2021


    For further information, contact Professor Peter Dearden,, 03 479 7832


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