While the wildlife in Antarctica is spectacular, large animals only occupy a tiny portion of the continent – mostly along its coastline. Its smaller lifeforms include phytoplankton, mites, nematodes, lice, tardigrades, springtails, krill, and rotifers.
However, most of the life that lives on Antarctica is microbial. Algae are abundant, including microscopic diatoms. Some bacteria, in particular, favor the frigid conditions, as they have been found living as deep as 2600 feet underneath the ice. Microbial life is incredibly resilient and can thrive in some of the harshest conditions on the planet, where scientists least expect to find any living thing.
Geologic evidence suggests that tundra vegetation, including some forests, covered parts of Antarctica until as recently as about 15 million years ago. However, its inhospitable climate has made plant life there extremely rare. Plants in Antarctica consist mostly of mosses and liverworts, which are primitive plants that do not have a vascular system,
Some flowering plants live in a few places along Antarctica’s coastline, and they only grow for a few weeks out of the summer. Researchers who study plant life in Antarctica can learn about some of the conditions on earth in its distant past.
Researchers have identified approximately 1150 different types of fungi in Antarctica. Many of these fungi are very primitive, with very simple morphology, low metabolisms, and undifferentiated structures. These primitive features make them ideally suited to life in the frozen Antarctic tundra.
Fungi in Antarctica are so abundant that they have had a noticeable impact on some of the rock formations there. Scientists who study the fungi estimate that they may have qualities and features similar to extraterrestrial life on places such as Mars. Studying these unique forms of life helps provide a window into both early conditions of life on earth and what life may be like if it exists elsewhere in the universe.
Sources: “50 Amazing Facts About Antarctica,” by Andrea Thompson. Live Science. March 10, 2014. “Scientists Reveal What Living and Working in Antarctica Is Really Like,” by Jesslyn Shields. How Stuff Works. February 2, 2017. “Almost alien: Antarctic subglacial lakes are cold, dark and full of secrets.” Science Daily. March 4, 2020. “Antarctica.” Wikipedia.