Ancient creatures are emerging from the cold storage of melting permafrost, almost like something out of a horror movie. From incredibly preserved extinct megafauna like the woolly rhino, to the 40,000-year-old remains of a giant wolf, and bacteria over 750,000 years old. Not all of these things are dead.

Centuries-old moss was able to spring back to life in the warmth of the laboratory. So too, incredibly, were tiny 42,000-year-old roundworms.

These fascinating glimpses of organisms from Earth’s long distant past are revealing the history of ancient ecosystems, including details of the environments in which they existed.

But the melt has also created some concerns about ancient viruses coming back to haunt us.

“Melting will not only lead to the loss of those ancient, archived microbes and viruses, but also release them to the environments in the future,” researchers explained in a study last year, led by first author and microbiologist Zhi-Ping Zhong from Ohio State University.

Thanks to metagenomics techniques and new methods for keeping their ice core samples sterilized, the researchers are able to get a better understanding of what exactly lies within the cold.

In the study, the team was able to identify an archive of dozens of unique 15,000-years-old viruses from the Guliya ice cap of the Tibetan Plateau, and gain insights into their functions.

“These glaciers were formed gradually, and along with dust and gases, many, many viruses were also deposited in that ice,” said Zhong. These microbes potentially represent those in the atmosphere at the time of their deposit, the team explained in their paper.

Past studies have shown microbial communities correlate with changes in dust and ion concentrations in the atmosphere, and can also indicate climate and environmental conditions at the time.

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