There’s nothing quite like exploring an unfamiliar terrain and discovering something entirely new.
It’s a feeling Guadalupe Bribiesca-Contreras of the UK’s Natural History Museum knows well. She’s the lead author of a new study that documented 39 species of deep-sea creatures believed to be new to science, including types of sea cucumbers, starfish, corals and sponges.
“It’s always exciting every time that we’re doing the work and he’s like, oh, I cannot identify this to anything known. And, you know, you start getting kind of excited because it’s probably a new species,” Bribiesca-Contreras told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.
“But the truth is, when we’re doing deep-sea studies … maybe 90 per cent of the animals we find are a new species to science. And that’s just because it’s so unexplored.”
The findings were published this month in the journal ZooKeys.
The 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, the CCZ descends 5,500 meters — making it almost as deep as Mount Kilimanjaro is high.
Operators controlled the vehicle from a vessel on the surface of the water, slowly scanning the sea floor with a camera from two meters above.
“There’s always scientists in the control room, and every time they see something exciting, they just start yelling and shouting,” Bribiesca-Contreras said.
The team took detailed images and videos of the creatures they found, then collected them to be further studied by zoologists around the world.
In total, they collected 55 specimens from 48 different species. Seven have been confirmed as new discoveries, says Bribiesca-Contreras. Another 32 are believed to be new, but more work needs to be done to confirm.
All are classified as macrofauna: bigger than microscopic organisms, but still only centimeters or even millimeters in size. That makes these findings particularly exciting, says Bribiesca-Contreras, as most scientific knowledge of deep-sea macrofauna is derived exclusively from photographs.
“It’s very hard to decide, you know, what’s a different species just from a photo,” Bribiesca-Contreras said.
“It’s not the same as having the specimen and actually being able to count how many tentacles they have or, you know, to even get some information from their DNA.”
Even the microfauna that aren’t 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 University of Victoria and a Canada research chair in deep ocean research, commended the “excellent team of scientists” on findings that “contribute to a major advance in a region where we know so very little.”
“I love new species,” Tunnicliffe said in an email. “Each tells a different story about adaptation to a unique and specialized habitat. A name can help with general adaptations but ‘new’ means something that is, indeed, novel.”
The CCZ is of particular interest to scientists, partly because so much of its ecosystem remains undocumented, but also because it’s rich in highly valuable minerals used in modern technology, including cobalt, nickel, manganese and copper.
These minerals are key to powering green technologies like wind turbines and electric cars. Already, Bribiesca-Contreras says companies are eyeing the area as a possible site of deep-sea mining.
“Obviously there’s a lot of commercial interest in the area. And even though there’s no exploitation happening at the moment, there’s a lot of exploration from the parties that are interested in exploiting 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 lives down there, [and] to describe diversity.”
Tunnicliffe estimates that as much as 80 per cent 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 in the deep sea, Bribiesca-Contreras says they can start identifying which areas should be set aside for marine conservation.
“This is part of a massive effort from scientists around the world that we’re all in a rush to describe the ecosystems down there,” she said.
“We definitely need to keep doing more exploration.”
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Aloysius Wong.