Nearly 300 New Marine Species Found Near Australia

Carolyn Barry in Sydney, Australia
for National Geographic News
October 9, 2008
Scientists have found 274 new species of corals, starfish, sponges, shrimps, and crabs 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) beneath the surface of the ocean around Antarctica. (See photos.)

"We know very little about the deep sea," said lead scientist Nic Bax, a marine biologist with Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Hobart, Tasmania.

"Finding out how much live coral is down there, and how large those communities are, is very exciting," he added.

Some of the corals were found to be about 2,000 years old, said Bax.

CSIRO made the discoveries in two separate voyages to marine reserves located 100 to 200 nautical miles off the southern coast of the island of Tasmania, Australia.

This is the third large group of marine species recently discovered in Australian waters. (See "113 New Sharks and Rays Announced in Australia" [September 21, 2008] and "Hundreds of New Reef Creatures Found in Australia" [September 18, 2008].)

Jackpot of Marine Life

Using powerful cameras, scientists shot 8,000 pictures and more than 100 hours of video footage of the seafloor.

They also discovered 145 undersea canyons and 80 new seamounts, or underwater mountains.

Seamounts can sprawl 15.6 miles (25 kilometers) across and rise thousands of feet from the seabed.

In the deep sea, where the ocean bottom is nothing more than muddy sediment, rocky seamounts offer a stable habitat that provides shelter and food for sea life, Bax said.

As such, seamounts support a jackpot of rich marine life in a quiet, dark world.

The Bigger Picture

The new research is part of a larger scheme to map and evaluate Australia's marine territory, an area bigger than the country's landmass.

"We probably know more about the surface of the moon than we do about some of the vast reaches of our oceans," said Peter Garrett, Australia's minister for the environment, heritage and the arts.

"We clearly have an important national interest in understanding the range and abundance of sea life that's within our maritime borders."

Such research will also feed into the Census of Marine Life, a global network of researchers aiming to develop a comprehensive picture of the world's oceans. The first census report is due to be released in 2010.

With only 87 percent of Australian waters unmapped, it's not surprising that huge numbers of new species are being discovered, said Justin Marshall, a marine scientist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, who was not involved with the research.

This latest discovery "shows us there's so much out there that we don't know" Marshall said. "We may be destroying habitat before we even know what's there, so we need to describe it before it's gone."

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