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Extreme New Species Discovered by Sea-Life Survey

James Owen
for National Geographic News
December 11, 2006
 
A host of weird and wonderful discoveries from across the seven seas has been discovered this year, according to a global census of ocean life.

Heat-resistant volcanic shrimps, bacteria-farming furry crabs, and a giant species of lobster are among the finds made by marine scientists probing some of the world's deepest and remotest seas.

(Related photos: See some of the creatures.)

The discoveries add to the Census of Marine Life, a project that seeks to record all known ocean life, living and extinct, by 2010. The census, now in its sixth year, involves a network of more than 1,700 researchers in at least 70 countries.

One team involved in the census reported the discovery of marine animals thriving in the hottest ocean waters ever recorded.

Heat-resistant species of mussels and shrimps were found living alongside volcanic fissures where temperatures reached 765 degrees Fahrenheit (407 degrees Celsius).

Submersible robots detected the sea creatures 1.8 miles (3 kilometers) beneath the surface of the South Atlantic, some 300 miles (550 kilometers) south of the Equator.

"These animals are living in environments in which temperatures can flicker instantly over a range of about 80 degrees Celsius [176 degrees Fahrenheit]," said survey team member Chris German of the Southampton Oceanography Centre in England.

"They are living as close to the vents as they dare get without getting themselves boiled alive," he added.

"Some of the mussel beds have been buried in lava," German said. "Such are the hazards of living on top of a volcano—it really is a life in the extremes."

(See a National Geographic magazine feature on looking for life near deep-sea vents.)

Biggest, "Hairiest" New Speices

Of the many new organisms recorded, the largest may be a giant rock lobster from waters off the island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

Caught on a submerged chain of underwater mountains, the newly named Palinurus barbarae lobster weighs up to 9 pounds (4 kilograms). Some of the collected specimens were 50 years old.

A less appetizing-looking crustacean with furry arms was discovered in the Pacific Ocean during a deep-sea dive expedition led by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California.

Located near hydrothermal vents on the sea floor at depths of 7,540 feet (2,300 meters), the blind, white, part-crab-part-lobster was deemed so unusual that a new taxonomic family was created for it.

Kiwa hirsute, also dubbed the "yeti crab," has long hairs covering its pincers and arms that support colonies of yellow bacteria.

(See "Photo in the News: 'Yeti Crab' Discovered in Deep Pacific" [March 9, 2006].)

Researchers speculate that the creature may cultivate these bacteria for food or to combat the harmful effects of a soup of toxic metals spewed up from the vents.

"Deepest" Discovery of the Year

The deepest census survey took place more than three miles (five kilometers) down in the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic, where researchers trawled up a rare and diverse array of tiny animals known as zooplankton.

More than 500 species were collected, including 12 likely new species.

Another census team reported an unusually large microscopic organism found at depths of 14,100 feet (4,300 meters) in seas off Portugal.

The single-celled "macro microbe" is 1 centimeter (0.4 inch) in diameter and equipped with a platelike shell designed to withstand pressures more than 400 times those at the surface.

Other reported discoveries include a prehistoric crustacean nicknamed the "Jurassic shrimp" from the Coral Sea off Australia that was thought to have gone extinct around 50 million years ago (see Australia map).

Meanwhile off the coast of New Jersey, a census ship equipped with latest sound-based survey technology detected a 20-million-strong school of fish that covered an area the size of Manhattan Island.

Future of Ocean Exploration

Technological advances are accelerating the rate at which new species are being discovered, according to Fred Grassle of Rutgers University in New Jersey, who chairs the Census of Marine Life steering committee.

"Each census expedition reveals new marvels of the ocean, and with the return of each vessel it is increasingly clear that many more discoveries await marine explorers for years to come," Grassle said.

Survey techniques being developed and tested over the ten-year census period may also help in the search for life on other planets, said German, of the Southampton Oceanography Centre.

The researcher says deep-sea robots his team deployed to locate hydrothermal vents are being looked at by NASA for potential use in extraterrestrial oceans.

The robots were programmed to follow chemical clues in the water to track down areas of volcanic activity on the seabed, German said.

Scientists speculate that similar hydrothermal habitats may exist elsewhere, such as on Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, which is thought to harbor a deep ocean beneath its frozen exterior.

Studies suggest Europa also has volcanic activity that would likely impact its ocean floor.

If that's the case, German said, "then there's plenty of chemical energy and a source of energy for food, so why couldn't you have an ecosystem based around that?"

NASA is planning further tests of the robots under ice in the Arctic next summer.

"It's the perfect natural laboratory for them," German added.

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