23 November 2009
Wonders of the deep
I last reported on the International Census of Marine Life back in 2006 (I think). The census It has been a decade-long exploration of the deep and, unsurprisingly, it has revealed a startling range of exotic new species and alien ways to eke out a living in the perpetual darkness.
Over 300 scientists from 34 nations have studied the oceans using a range of tools including deep-diving submersibles, piloted robots automated drones discovering more than 17,000 new species in the process
For example an expedition to the mid-Atlantic ridge this discovered what is thought to be a new species related to the octopus, nicknamed the “Jumbo Dumbo” for its passing resemblance to the fictional flying elephant.
“If it came up in a trawl it would just be a lump of jelly, but photograph it from a submersible, and it’s very beautiful and graceful,” said Odd Aksel Bergstad of the University of Bergen. “We know very little about how they live. They’re predators but we don’t know what they feed on or how they reproduce. At least one of the nine kinds we found is probably a new species.
Much life in the deep relies on death in the sunlit waters above. While most food comes from the falling remains of tiny marine organisms, occasionally the biggest animals on the planet crash to the seabed. Seventeen species of “zombie bone-eating worms” — otherwise known as Osedax — survive on the rare bounty of a sunken whale.
In the deep, unidentified species are often the norm, not the exception. One cruise yielded 680 specimens of fly-like copepod, only seven of which could be identified.
“The abyssal fauna is so rich in species diversity and so poorly described that collecting a known species is an anomaly,” said Dr David Billett of the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. “Describing for the first time all the different species in any coffee cup-sized sample of deep-sea sediment is a daunting challenge.”
Information from the census will be used to inform efforts to protect the diversity and abundance of deep-sea species. Fishing the depths relies on bottom-trawling that can destroy fragile habitats before their existence is even realised. The offshore oil and gas industry is drilling in ever deeper water, and plans to mine rich mineral deposits on the seafloor are in prospect.
One word to describe my feeling about the new discoveries and that's WOW!