Scientists find new life in Antarctic deep

  • Crater
    Crater   Sediment profile image from Weddell Continental Slope, entrance to Powell Basin at 2600 meters depth. Sediments are muddy and highly bioturbated with a large crater-like burrow in the center. Surface is covered by phytodetritus. Image is 15 cm wide.   Photo by Robert J. Diaz.
  • Sea Pen
    Sea Pen   This cross-sectional view of the seafloor is from northwest Anvers Island, Bellingshausen Sea at a depth of 12,467 feet. The edge of the camera caught a sea pen and pushed it into the sandy seafloor. Image is 15 cm wide.   Photo by Robert J. Diaz.
  • Sea urchins
    Sea urchins   These sea urchins were photographed with a sediment-profiling camera in the Scotia Sea, Antarctica, at a depth of 6,414 feet. This photo graces the cover of the May 17 2007 issue of Nature.   Photo by Robert J. Diaz.
  • chrionid.jpg
      Sediment profile image from NW Anvers Island, Bellingshausen Sea at 2100 meters depth. Chrionid arm on the left and brittle star on the right. Sediments are sandy mud. Image is 15 cm wide.   Photo by Robert J. Diaz.
  • Sediment profile image
    Sediment profile image   Sediment profile image from South Orkney Islands, Powell Basin at 1180 meters depth. Sediments are sandy mud. The surface sediment is covered with phytodetritus and angular pebbles. Sediment surface is bioturbated with worm tubes projecting above the sediment. Image is 15 cm wide.   Photo by Rochelle Seitz.
  • Sediment profile image
    Sediment profile image   Sediment profile image from Central Bransfield Strait at 2000 meters depth. Sediments are muddy silt-clay with the sea bed covered by sea pens. The edge of the camera prism caught a sea pen and pulled it into the sediment. Image is 15-cm wide.   Photo by Robert J. Diaz.
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An international research team including VIMS Professor Robert Diaz has found hundreds of new marine species in the vast, dark deep-sea surrounding Antarctica—the bottom of the bottom of the world. Carnivorous sponges, free-swimming worms, crustaceans, and molluscs living in the Weddell Sea provide new insights into the evolution of ocean life.

Reporting in the May 17 issue of the journal Nature, the scientists describe how creatures in the deeper parts of the Southern Ocean—the source for much of the deep water in the world ocean—are likely related to animals living in both the adjacent shallower waters and in other parts of the deep ocean.

A key question for scientists is whether shallow-water species colonized the deep ocean or vice versa. The research findings suggest that recurring advances of Antarctic ice may have forced shallow-water organisms into the surrounding depths, leading to an intermingling of species that originated in shallow and deep-water habitats.

Lead author Professor Angelika Brandt from the Zoological Institute and Zoological Museum, University Hamburg, says “The Antarctic deep sea is potentially the cradle of life of global marine species. Our research results challenge suggestions that deep-sea diversity in the Southern Ocean is poor. We now have a better understanding of the evolution of marine species and how they can adapt to changes in climate and environments.”

Diaz says the team’s most significant finding is the unexpected vitality and diversity of the seafloor community in a setting that would seem to hold little promise for life—with water temperatures at 30-34°F, total darkness, and bone-crushing pressure. The expedition sampled at depths from 3,000 to more than 20,000 feet.

“We discovered hundreds and hundreds of new species,” says Diaz. He was particularly struck by the diversity of isopods, small crustaceans related to pill bugs. “Sampling at just 25 stations doubled the number of known deep-sea isopod species.”

Diaz’s role in the international expedition was to characterize and photograph the habitats of the area’s bottom-dwelling creatures. His photograph of a sea urchin, taken in the Scotia Sea at a depth of 6,414 feet, graced the cover of the Nature issue in which the research article appeared.

Dr Katrin Linse, a marine biologist from the British Antarctic Survey, adds, “What was once thought to be a featureless abyss is in fact a dynamic, variable, and biologically rich environment. Finding this extraordinary treasure trove of marine life is our first step to understanding the complex relationships between the deep ocean and the distribution of marine life.”

The Nature study reports the findings of the ANDEEP project (ANtarctic benthic DEEP-sea biodiversity),  a series of three expeditions to the  Southern Ocean between 2002 and  2005 aboard the German research ship  Polarstern. An international team from 14 research organizations investigated  the seafloor to build a picture of this little-known region of the ocean. They found more than 700 new species.

In addition to Dr. Diaz, VIMS  graduate student Lawrence Carpenter  also took part in the research.