Natural History of London.
“I’m really dying of emotion.”
“It’s just amazing. There are animals we’ve never seen or behaviors we’ve never seen, it’s a whole different world.”
Mexican scientist Guadalupe Bribiesca-Contreras shared with BBC Mundo what she felt when she saw for the first time some of the beings she found with her colleagues at depths of more than 5,000 meters.
The marine biologist, a researcher at the Natural History Museum in London, is the lead author of a new study on the findings of an expedition to a little-studied area of the Pacific Ocean.
Using a remotely operated vehicle, the scientists collected 55 deep-sea specimens belonging to 48 different species.
It has already been confirmed that at least seven of these species are new to science, explained Bribiesca-Contreras. And it is believed that in total the number of species ever recorded could reach more than 30.
But this unknown, diverse and dazzling world is under threat.
In the deep ocean there are also large amounts of metals and there are already plans for their exploitation.
Collecting organisms that do not survive outside the wild may seem like a drastic intervention. But scientists warn that knowing more about the creatures of the deep sea is more urgent than ever to try to protect them.
Where were the animals found and at what depths?
The expedition collected samples in a region of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a vast area covering more than five million square km.
In addition to abyssal plains “there are a lot of seamounts there and the depth varies,” said the biologist.
“Several of the specimens we have are from more than 5,000 meters deep, but some samples were taken on seamounts at about 3,200 meters.”
Depths in the Clarion-Clipperton zone reach about 5,500 meters, as high as Mount Kilimanjaro.
“Just imagine that you are going to run five kilometers, how long it takes you. That is the depth at which we collect organisms, it is incredible,” said Bribiesca-Contreras.
How is Clarion-Clipperton, the enigmatic and rich area of the Pacific Ocean between Mexico and Hawaii that can define the future of mining
The threat of mining at the bottom of the sea
The Clarion-Clipperton zone has attracted the attention of not only the scientific community, but also governments and companies in recent years.
Large swaths of its plains are covered in polymetallic nodules, potato-sized chunks of rock rich in metals such as cobalt, nickel, manganese, and copper.
These materials are used in green technologies such as wind towers and electric cars. Interest in mining them has increased, especially from companies and governments who say the deep ocean metals will be essential to combating climate change.
However, those who oppose these initiatives warn that the extraction of metals could devastate vast areas of the ocean and cause irreparable damage to unique ecosystems that are not yet understood.
For Bribiesca-Contreras, “if we don’t even know what lives there, we don’t know the damage that trying to extract this resource will cause.”
Expeditions like the one at the Natural History Museum in London are part of a scientific endeavor in a race against time.
The tiny Pacific country that can make the dreaded search for minerals at the bottom of the sea a reality
Adrian Glover, director of the deep sea research group at the Natural History Museum in London, is a co-author of the new study.
“While deep sea mining is a very valid environmental concern, we are in a positive situation where we have been able to do a lot of fundamental research while the industry remains restricted from large-scale exploitation,” said Glover.
“A big societal decision on deep sea mining is on the horizon and our role is to provide as much data as possible to inform that decision as best we can.”
“They do weird things”
Bribiesca-Contreras described to BBC Mundo some of the extraordinary animals found on the expedition.
“For example, you have carnivorous sponges, which sounds super weird. You would expect them to be like a carnivorous plant that is kind of waiting for food to drop on it.”
“But we have videos where you see a little shrimp pass by and the sponge changes shape to gobble it up and then spits out the exoskeleton.”
“They do weird things, they produce light. They also have super weird adaptations for reproduction, because it’s not like walking around London that’s full of men or women.”
“Down there you can go a kilometer and not find someone of your same species. So they have adaptations where the males become parasites of the females, so the females always have as a reservoir of sperm for when they want to reproduce.”
One of the specimens that most caught the attention of the scientist is a hedgehog.
“When you go diving you normally see hedgehogs moving but very slowly. Well, this hedgehog, when the remotely operated vehicle approaches it, gets up and starts to gallop, you see it running on the bottom.”
The biologist pointed out that in the west of the Clarion-Clipperton zone there is very little food.
“More nutrients arrive in the eastern zone in the form of ‘marine snow’, everything that dies and is not eaten along the way, all of that falls. There is more marine snow in the eastern zone than on the side West”.
Scientists expected to see only small animals due to lack of food.
“But we found a sea cucumber over half a meter long and a sponge about a meter long.”
What is the abyssal kingdom, the least known ecosystem on Earth that scientists are beginning to reveal
Why is it important to collect deep sea animals?
The expedition focused on areas to the west of the Clarion-Clipperton zone, which is the least studied part.
And another peculiarity of the study is that it collected samples from large animals.
“What is most commonly studied in this area are all the organisms that live in the sediment.”
“They take a lot of mud, they sift through it and all the little things, worms, some crustaceans, all of that is what has been given more emphasis. The big animals are very difficult to collect.”
The advantage of having specimens, and not just photos like those taken in previous expeditions, is that to study these species “you need to have the specimen, count the tentacles, the legs, see internal characters.”
The specimens will be compared by expert taxonomists with the few specimens considered type of their species, in order to determine with certainty if indeed more than 30 of the collected organisms are new species.
And it will also be possible to carry out DNA studies.
“We sequenced a commonly used gene and compared it against sequences that already exist. But that’s another big problem, that deep-sea animals are so rare and belong to such completely different lineages that there’s nothing similar when you compare them.” in databases. We need to start building deep-sea databases.”
One expedition, a thousand questions
The study raised a whole range of questions for Bribiesca-Contreras and her colleagues.
“We would like to investigate how these animals reproduce and one thing I would love to know is how long they live. They have done some studies on certain sponges that are a thousand or two thousand years old.”
“How old are the animals that we collected? As I was saying before, some of the animals that we found were huge. And to get to that size in such a low-energy environment, I think it’s because it’s been a long time.”
Scientists also hope to investigate how these organisms are related to other groups of marine animals.
“A lot of these deep sea groups represent very long branches on the tree of life. They split off from shallower water groups maybe a hundred million years ago, they’re super ancient groups.”
Guadalupe Bribiesca-Contreras knew as a child growing up in Mexico City that she wanted to be a marine biologist. Although she then she had never seen the sea, and she only knew it through documentaries such as those of Jacques Cousteau.
Today and after years of studies and expeditions, that passion continues to grow, along with a feeling of great respect for the animals that inhabit the depths of the ocean.
“Imagine how difficult it must be to live in the deep sea. How long has the human species been around? It’s unmatched by some of these species that survived mass extinction events and have lineages a hundred million years old.”
“I see these animals as beautiful and before them I feel surprise, admiration and a lot of curiosity.”
“Every time we see something we have a thousand questions.”
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