Study: Volcanoes Helped Species Survive Past Ice Ages

New research suggests volcanoes and heated rocks helped plants and animals make it past the ice ages, the last of which occurred 20,000 years ago.

Smoke and ash billow in April 2010 from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano.

Smoke and ash billow in April 2010 from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Scientists believe volcanoes helped plant and animal species stay warm and survive past ice ages.

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They were the world’s first radiators.

Volcanoes and heated rocks helped a range of plants and animals survive past the ice ages, a new study has found, potentially helping researchers better understand how species adapt to climate change.

Scientists studied tens of thousands of records of Antarctic species, finding that more plants and animals lived close to volcanoes, and fewer lived farther away.

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"Volcanic steam can melt large ice caves under the glaciers, and it can be tens of degrees warmer in there than outside. Caves and warm steam fields would have been great places for species to hang out during ice ages," Ceridwen Fraser, a lecturer and researcher at Australian National University and one of the study’s leaders, said in a statement. "We can learn a lot from looking at the impacts of past climate change as we try to deal with the accelerated change that humans are now causing."

The study, based in Antarctica, focused on bugs, lichens and mosses that are still common on the continent today. About 60 percent of the invertebrate species on Antarctica are found nowhere else in the world, suggesting they "must have been there for millions of years,” said Peter Convey, a professor with the British Antarctic Survey.

“How they survived past ice ages – the most recent of which ended less than 20,000 years ago – has long puzzled scientists,” he said.

The findings, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, support the hypothesis that “species have been expanding their ranges and gradually moving out from volcanic areas since the last ice age,” said Aleks Terauds of the Australian Antarctic Division.

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They also could help guide future conservation efforts in Antarctica.

"Knowing where the 'hotspots' of diversity are will help us to protect them as human-induced environmental changes continue to affect Antarctica," said Steven Chown, a professor at Australia's Monash University.

The project was supported by the Australian Research Council.