More Surprises from the Deep Sea

21 August, 2016

Researchers hired to study part of the deep sea floor of the Pacific Ocean found a surprising number of new animal species.

Scientists at the University of Hawaii at Manoa studied a 900-square-kilometer area in the eastern part of the Pacific Ocean known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, or CCZ. Their goal was to find and study new kinds of sea life. Their task included documenting what is living in the deep sea area, known as an abyss.

The researchers published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Diva Amon is a researcher at the University of Hawaii. She is assistant director of the ABYSSLINE project to study undersea life.

She spoke with VOA on Skype from her laboratory in Hawaii. Amon says usually deep sea biologists think there is not a lot living in the abyss.

A species of cnidarian in the genus Relicanthus with 2.5-meter long tentacles attached to a dead sponge stalk on a nodule in the eastern Clarion-Clipperton Zone. These are closely related to anemones.
A species of cnidarian in the genus Relicanthus with 2.5-meter long tentacles attached to a dead sponge stalk on a nodule in the eastern Clarion-Clipperton Zone. These are closely related to anemones.

"But we found that actually there is quite a lot living there, and so that was really exciting..."

The group is studying the area because the CCZ is known to have valuable minerals, including copper, nickel and cobalt.

The metals are found in pieces, five to 10 centimeters in size, called nodules. They are spread along the seafloor from 3,000 to 6,000 meters below the ocean's surface.

The CCZ is a huge, flat area of seabed, almost the size of the United States. It is located between the mountainous Clarion and Clipperton Fracture Zones. These are areas where the Earth's crust is cracked or fractured.

The CCZ sits between Central America and the Hawaiian Islands.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is permitting the company UK Seabed Resources Ltd. to explore the area on the Pacific Ocean floor for mining. However, the ISA said the company must first complete a biological study of the area before it can begin mining for metals.

So, the company hired Diva Amon and the ABYSSLINE project. Their job is to find out what sea life exists in the area. They want to know how marine life depends on the mineral deposits on the ocean floor.

Amon says that more than half of the animals they collected were completely new to science.

"It just shows how much more work really needs to be done in that area because we know so little..."

Her group discovered a new species of anemone and two new species of sponges. But three of the animals Amon collected were not only new species, but new categories of animals. Two of these are in the coral family and the third is a completely new genus and species.

Paul Snelgrove is a biological oceanographer with the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada. He told VOA that finding new species in the deep ocean is common. But, he said, finding a new genus "is really quite profound."

Amon's work centers on the relationship between the living things and the metallic nodules. She found that more than half of the animals collected were attached to the nodules. The CCZ seabed is a soft, flat seafloor. The nodules provide the only hard surface where many creatures can attach themselves.

Amon warns that if mining happens across the entire area, the ecosystem would be, in her words, "decimated." But, she says, scientists want to find the least damaging way to make mining possible.

"There is a sort of scientific push to try and slow things a bit so that the science can be done before ... so this [mining] can be done as sustainably, and least impacting as possible..."

That is why these studies are so important, says Snelgrove, who is not part of the ABYSSLINE project.

"It's likely we are going to develop at least some aspects of these deep ocean environments and we should try to do that with knowledge in hand and do it in a way that's going to minimize our impact."

More cruises into the deep

The ABYSSLINE project has five years to study deep sea life in the eastern Pacific. Amon expects that more new life forms will be discovered on future trips. She says she is studying data.

She calls the deep sea a "fascinating place." There are so many things there that no one has ever seen before that are "weird and wonderful."

"We need to be careful and hope fully by doing the studies that we're doing... we can provide the data that can be used to manage the areas as best as possible."

The deep sea is one of the last areas on Earth that has not been greatly affected by humans. So, there could be many strange new worlds yet to explore.

I'm Anne Ball.

JoEllen McBride reported on this story for VOANews. Anne Ball wrote this story for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.

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Words in This Story

abyss – n. a hole so deep or so great that it cannot be measured

anemone – n. a small brightly colored sea animal that looks like a flower

sponge – n. a type of sea animal

genus – n. a group of related animals or plants that includes several different species

profound – adj. very great

decimated – v. severely destroyed

aspect – n. part

fascinating – adj. very interesting

manage – v. to take care of and make decisions about