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Mummified seals shed light on microbe communities

Biologists working in Antarctica's dry valleys have been moving mummified seal corpses around, in an effort to try and better our understanding of the microbes that live there.

The extreme aridity of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, where katabatic winds mean that almost all moisture evaporates immediately, allows for the natural mummification of anything that dies there. It also means that almost nothing grows -- and what does grow tends to grow very slowly. Or so the researchers thought.

In actuality, it seems that life goes on rather faster than anticipated in these bleak locations. The team found a 250-year-old mummified crab-eater seal and measured the level of microbial activity beneath it. The mummies leak nutrients into the soil below, and can trap moisture to some degree, allowing large communities of microbes to be supported.

To try and find out how quickly these microbial colonies adapt, the researchers lugged the mummy 150 metres away from its previous location and analysed how the soil underneath changed over the course of five years. They found that after just two summers, the bacterial communities below it resembled those at the site where it had been for the previous 250 years.

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