There’s nothing quite like exploring uncharted territory and discovering something entirely new.
It’s a sentiment Guadalupe Bribiesca-Contreras of the UK’s Natural History Museum knows well. She is the lead author of a new study that documented 39 species of deep-sea creatures considered new to science, including types of sea cucumbers, starfish, corals and sponges.
“It’s always exciting every time we do the work and he’s like, oh, I can’t identify that with anything known. And, you know, you’re starting to get a little excited because it’s is probably a new species,” Bribiesca-Contreras said. As it happens guest host Helen Mann.
“But the truth is, when we do studies in the high seas…maybe 90% of the animals we find are a new species to science. And that’s just because it’s so unexplored.”
The conclusions were published this month in ZooKeys magazine.
Researchers used a remotely operated vehicle to explore marine life in the deepest depths of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a five million square kilometer area in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico.
At its deepest point, the CCZ drops to 5,500 meters, making it almost as deep as the height of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Operators controlled the vehicle from a vessel on the surface of the water, slowly scanning the seabed with a camera two meters above.
“There are always scientists in the control room, and every time they see something exciting, they start screaming and screaming,” Bribiesca-Contreras said.
The team took detailed images and videos of the creatures they found, then collected them for further study by zoologists around the world.
In total, they collected 55 specimens of 48 different species. Seven have been confirmed as new discoveries, says Bribiesca-Contreras. Another 32 are believed to be new, but there is still work to be done to confirm.
All are classified as macrofauna: larger than microscopic organisms, but still centimeter or even millimeter in size. That makes these discoveries particularly exciting, says Bribiesca-Contreras, because most scientific knowledge of deep-sea macrofauna comes exclusively from photographs.
“It’s very hard to decide, you know, what a different species is just from a photo,” Bribiesca-Contreras said.
“It’s not the same as having the specimen and being able to count how many tentacles they have or, you know, even getting information from their DNA.”
Even microfauna not new to science are rare.
For example, the team collected a Psychopotes dyscrita – a 30-centimetre-long yellow sea cucumber that the team dubbed a “gummy squirrel” – which Bribiesca-Contreras says is one of only two known specimens in existence.
Verena Tunnicliffe, a marine biologist at the University of Victoria and Canada Research Chair in Deep Ocean Research, praised the “excellent team of scientists” for discoveries that “contribute to a major breakthrough in a region where we know so little”.
“I love new species,” Tunnicliffe said in an email. “Each tells a different story about adapting to a unique, specialized habitat. A name can help with general adaptations, but ‘new’ means something that is, indeed, new.”
The CCZ is of particular interest to scientists, partly because much of its ecosystem remains undocumented, but also because it is rich in highly valuable minerals used in modern technology, including cobalt, nickel, manganese and the copper.
These minerals are essential for powering green technologies such as wind turbines and electric cars. Already, Bribiesca-Contreras says companies are eyeing the area as a possible site for deep-sea mining.
“Obviously there is a lot of commercial interest in the area. And even though there is no mining going on at the moment, there is a lot of exploration by interested parties to exploit the resource,” she said.
“So it’s very, very important that we as scientists understand the ecosystem. And the first thing to, you know, really understand the ecosystem is to know exactly what’s living there, [and] to describe diversity.
Tunnicliffe estimates that up to 80% of the megafauna in this part of the ocean are still unknown to scientists.
“Biodiversity loss is a major concern,” she said.
As scientists get a better picture of life on the high seas, Bribiesca-Contreras says they can begin to identify areas that should be set aside for marine conservation.
“It’s part of a massive effort by scientists around the world that we’re all in a rush to describe the ecosystems there,” she said.
“We definitely need to keep doing more exploration.”
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview conducted by Aloysius Wong.