Researchers have discovered the way some creatures survived the last ice age, huddled close to the nourishing warmth of volcanoes.

Plants and animals sought out the world’s most powerful source of ducted heating to hide from the world-wide winter.

An international team says the steam and heat from volcanoes kept rocks hot and allowed many species to survive past ice ages, continuing to live and evolve while large parts of the planet were covered by glaciers.

A team has pored over tens of thousands of records of Antarctic species, collected over decades by hundreds of researchers. They found that there are more species close to volcanoes, and fewer further away.

“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,” Dr Ceridwen Fraser from the Australian National University said.

“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 latest study was based on data collected in Antarctica, which has at least 16 volcanoes which have been active since the last ice age 20,000 years ago.

The study examined diversity patterns of mosses, lichens and bugs which are still common in Antarctica today.

Professor Peter Convey from the British Antarctic Survey said around 60 per cent of Antarctic invertebrate species are found nowhere else in the world.

“They have clearly not arrived on the continent recently, but must have been there for millions of years. How they survived past ice ages – the most recent of which ended less than 20,000 years ago – has long puzzled scientists,” he said.

Dr Terauds of the Australian Antarctic Division ran the analyses, and says the patterns are striking.

“The closer you get to volcanoes, the more species you find. This pattern supports our hypothesis that species have been expanding their ranges and gradually moving out from volcanic areas since the last ice age,” Dr Terauds said.

The findings will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and are available here.