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During a 34-day expedition to a little explored area of the Pacific, an international team of scientists identified a number of new species living on the seafloor of newly-designated conservation zones.
The deep-sea covers around 65% of Earth's surface and houses one of the planet's largest ecosystems. But it is also one of the least-studied environments.
Scientists recently carried out a survey of life on the seafloor of the western Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean, a mineral-rich area that has attracted the interest of deep-sea miners.
The seafaring researchers identified an astonishing biodiversity, including a number of species new to science.
Museum scientists were part of an international group of researchers involved in the DeepCCZ mission to survey seafloor conservation areas of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ). Over 100 species of large animals were filmed and collected from Areas of Particular Environmental Importance (APEIs).
Dr Helena Wiklund, lead scientist at sea and Museum scientific associate, said, 'I was amazed to see the diversity of animals down there, lots of beautiful and strange organisms and so many different species.'
Helena identified two new species during the expedition and believes that there will be more once all of the specimens collected have been studied. The two identified will now be analysed, described and given names.
Craig Smith, Professor of Oceanography at the University of Hawai'i and Lead Investigator of the DeepCCZ project, said, 'The diversity of life in these seafloor areas is really amazing.
'We found at least ten species of giant sea cucumbers, a huge squid worm never seen before in the Pacific Ocean, and all kinds of sponges. We also found other animals with really neat adaptations, such as sea cucumbers with long tails that allow them to sail along the seafloor.'
Dives to the seafloor were conducted using a new Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) called Lu'ukai (meaning 'sea diver'), reaching depths in excess of 5,200 metres. The vehicle was equipped to film and collect deep-sea animals, sediments and polymetallic nodules – potato-sized accretions of metal-rich minerals found on the seafloor.
Investigators from the Museum gathered information on the invertebrates found in the CCZ.
Dr Adrian Glover, DeepCCZ Principal Investigator at the Museum, said, 'There has been one big expedition and now we've got a couple of years to work on the samples. We're aiming to answer three questions - what's there, how widespread these animals are and how connected their populations are genetically.
'We'll do genetic sequencing of the animals and create a phylogenetic tree [to understand how they are related to each other], and also identify them using morphology.
Using the genetic data, scientists are able to look at biogeographic ranges of the animals. Adrian explains, 'We'll collect data from 20 or 30 individuals of selected abundant taxa from two or three sites and look at them in more detail to see how connected the populations are.'
Dr Thomas Dahlgren, a researcher at the University of Gothenburg, is leading this genetic connectivity study. He is working closely with the Natural History Museum, where all of the genetic sequencing work is being carried out.
This area of the Pacific is the richest polymetallic mineral deposit in the world and there are numerous mining exploration claims associated with it. One key aim of the DeepCCZ project is to determine whether the newly-designated conservation zones are able to safeguard the region's deep-sea biodiversity from the destructive effects of mining.
The presence of larvae may be a positive indicator that mined areas could be conserved. Adrian says, 'Many marine invertebrates release larvae - so if these are moving around the seafloor, the mined areas could potentially be recolonised by larvae from the reserve areas.'
The data collected from this project are key for the International Seabed Authority when it comes to them assessing how effective the Pacific's APEIs are.
The CCZ is one of the least studied areas of the planet. Adrian explains, 'These are completely unexplored areas of the ocean floor. It's a long way south of Hawaii, which is already very isolated. Effectively we know how deep it is and that's about it.'
Helena spent 34-days at sea and was joined by two post-graduate students - Museum and University of Plymouth PhD student Kirsty McQuaid, and Regan Drennan, a student on the Museum-Imperial masters course in Biodiversity.
Of her time aboard the Kilo Moana research vessel, Regan says, 'The cruise was a fantastic and unique experience, and it made me truly appreciate the scale of these ecosystems and how much there is yet to discover.
'It was also great to be part of such a big team, with people from all different backgrounds and expertise working towards the same goal.'