Life in the Depths New Sea Life Species Discovered in Antarctica

Fan-finned ice fish, spindley orange sea stars, and roving sea cucumbers -- an unknown underwater world full of new species and exotic sealife has been discovered by an international team of scientists in Antarctica.


Climate change has been this month's hot topic. First the United Nations published a report holding humans directly responsible for global warming. Then the European Union got hot under the collar about cutting car emissions. Even the Oscars jumped on the CO2-friendly bandwagon, awarding Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" the prize for Best Documentary.

But it's an ill overheating planet that brings nobody any good, and now global warming has led to the discovery of several new species. Scientists recently discovered a completely unknown underwater world in Antarctica -- all thanks to the changing climate.

Rising temperatures led to the collapse of the ice shelves Larsen A and Larsen B 12 and five years ago respectively, exposing a 3,900-square-mile area -- and giving researchers a rare insight into its previously unknown sea life. Among new species found were 15 shrimp-like ampiphods and four possible new species of cnidarians (organisms related to coral), jellyfish and sea anemones.

Over ten weeks, 52 scientists from 14 nations participated in the expedition, led by the German Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI). As part of the "Census of Antarctic Marine Life" project, they studied the Weddell Sea around the Antarctic peninsula, onboard the icebreaking vessel Polarstern.

The goal was to learn more about one of the world's least-known ecosystems. "So far, we did not have access to such areas, with the few exceptions of drill holes or cracks where people could deploy some remote video cameras," expedition leader Julian Gutt said.

Exotic sealife

Using a remote-controlled underwater vessel, the team found in the relatively shallow 2,800-feet depths fauna that is normally associated with seabeds three times that deep. The finds included fan-finned ice fish, spindley orange sea stars -- some with as many as 12 arms -- and roving sea cucumbers.

Another discovery on the ocean floor was a "cold seep" which spews water containing methane and sulphide. Such vents can create a temporary habitat for highly specialised bacteria that survive without sunlight.

The explorers also found settlements of fast-growing sea squirts which look like gelatinous bags. These are believed to have started colonizing the area only after the collapse of the ice shelves.

The explorers have now returned, taking home with them hundreds of specimen for further analysis. They hope to present the first findings in September. In analyzing the changing marine life conditions, the scientists hope to "advance our ability to predict the future of our biosphere in a changing environment," according to Gutt.

If global warming continues, more such underwater data could surface in the future. "These kind of collapses are expected to happen more," said Gauthir Chapelle of the Brussels-based Polar Foundation. "What we're observing here is probably going to happen elsewhere around Antarctica."

mkp/rts/dpa

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