Weird Marine Life Antarctica's Deep Sea Menagerie

Move over, Captain Nemo. Over a mile beneath the icy waters surrounding Antarctica, a team of deep-sea researchers have surfaced some very unusual findings.

The sea floor is a cold and dark place. But take three hulking ships, a team of marine biologists, a map, and something to scoop things up with, and weird things come to light.

Exactly this plan was enacted -- albeit a bit more complexly -- when Australian, French, and Japanese scientists took to the waters and discovered several new species in the ocean deep around Antarctica. After returning in late January, their findings are beginning to appear. And some of them are bizarre: sea spiders the size of dinner platters, randomly-finned fish, mammoth jellyfish with tentacles up to six meters (19 feet) long, sack-sized sponges, glassy sea urchins, and broad, scaly worms.

"We had some of the world's experts on Antarctic fish, and they were completely, completely flabbergasted," said Martin Riddle, the lead researcher of the Australian ship, Aurora Australis. "Many of the fish had very large eyes…[and] fins in various places. They had funny, dangly bits around their mouths." The fish experts on board, Riddle said, "were unable to name them."

Riddle is part of an expedition called the Collaborative East Antarctic Marine Census (CEAMARC), which saw a team of international scientists board three ships and trawl for life in 48,280 square kilometers (30,000 square miles) of water off the east coast of the Antarctic continent. Eighty-two different sites were sampled during the expedition, some of which plunged nearly 2,000 meters (6,561 feet) into the icy depths. The other CEAMARC ships are the French L'Astrolabe and the Japanese Umitaka Maru, the latter still at sea. Riddle's Australian vessel returned to port on Jan. 30, after a month and a half patrolling the southernmost sea floor on the globe.

Scientists at CEAMARC estimate that at least a quarter of the sea life brought to the surface during the Austalian trip, 65 pounds of biomass, was previously unknown. In some places, Riddle said, "every inch of the sea floor is covered in life." Graham Hosie, an Australian marine biologist on board the Japanese ship, said his team had discovered entirely new species of plankton and jellyfish.

The team of researchers believe the CEAMARC census will help scientists understand how marine life of all varieties has adapted to the unique and yet-unspoiled Antarctic liquid environment. This specific tri-partite expedition is part of a larger project called the Census of Antarctic Marine Life (CAML), an international program created to investigate Antarctic marine biodiversity and how it will be altered by global climate change, something Riddle fears is bound to occur: "This survey establishes a point of reference to monitor the impact of environmental change in Antarctic waters," he said. "For example, ocean acidification, caused by rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, will make it harder for marine organisms to grow and sustain calcium carbonate skeletons." 

The Census on Marine Life will continue into next year, with 16 trips by researchers from countries such as England, the United States, Brazil, and Peru already planned. Another grand expedition in a decade will help determine what kind of effects global warming has had on the Antarctic's dark yet vulnerable seas.


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