Scientists find 39 potential new deep-sea creatures. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg

There is nothing quite like exploring uncharted territory and discovering something completely new.

It’s a feeling Guadalupe Bribiesca-Contreras, of Britain’s Natural History Museum, knows well. She is the lead author of a new study documenting 39 species of deep-sea creatures thought to be new to science, including species of sea cucumbers, starfish, corals and sponges.

“It’s exciting every time we do the work and he’s like, oh, I can’t relate to anything familiar. And, you know, you get kind of excited because it’s probably a new species,” Bribiesca-Contreras said How it happens Innkeeper Helen Mann.

“But the truth is, if we do deep-sea studies… maybe 90 percent of the animals we find are a new species to science.” And that’s only because it’s so unexplored.”

The insights were published this month in ZooKeys magazine.

A set of colorful and oddly shaped sea creatures against a black background.
Some of the deep sea creatures recently found during the expedition. (DeepCCZ Expedition/Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation/NOAA)

Researchers used a remote-controlled vehicle to explore marine life at the deepest depths of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a five million square kilometer area in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico.

At its deepest point, the CCZ plunges 5,500 meters, almost as deep as Kilimanjaro is high.

The operators steered the vehicle from a ship on the water surface and slowly scanned the seabed with a camera from a height of two meters.

“There are always scientists in the control room, and every time they see something exciting, they just start screaming and yelling,” said Bribiesca-Contreras.

A white, translucent soft coral sea creature against a black background.  It appears to have seven finger-like tendrils reaching upwards.
Chrysogorgia sp is a newly discovered soft coral species. (DeepCCZ Expedition/Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation/NOAA)

The team took detailed pictures and videos of the creatures they found, then collected them for further study by zoologists around the world.

In total, they collected 55 specimens from 48 different species. Seven have been confirmed as new discoveries, Bribiesca-Contreras says. Another 32 are believed to be new, but more work needs to be done to confirm this.

A greenish-yellow sea cucumber crawls across the seabed.  It looks like a cucumber cut in half and blushed at the bottom.  A
Psychropotes dyscrita – also known as the rubbery squirrel – is a species of sea cucumber collected by scientists at the Natural History Museum in the abyssal plains of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. (DeepCCZ Expedition/Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation/NOAA)

All are classified as macrofauna: larger than microscopic organisms, but still only centimeters or even millimeters in size. That makes these results particularly exciting, says Bribiesca-Contreras, since most scientific knowledge about deep-sea macrofauna comes exclusively from photographs.

“It’s very difficult to decide what a different species is just from a photo,” said Bribiesca-Contreras.

“It’s not the same as having the sample and being able to actually count how many tentacles they have, or even get some information from their DNA.”

A metal arm reaches out to pluck a sponge from the ocean floor.  It has a long stalk and a swollen white head, and looks like a seed-covered dandelion.
Bolosominae stet is a species of sponge that is believed to be new to science. (DeepCCZ Expedition/Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation/NOAA)

The microfauna, which is not new to science, is also rare.

For example, the team collected a Psychopotes dyscrita — a 30-centimetre-long yellow sea cucumber that the team dubbed a “rubber squirrel” — which Bribiesca-Contreras says is one of only two known specimens in existence.

Verena Tunnicliffe, a marine biologist at the University of Victoria and Canada Research Chair in Deep Sea Studies, praised the “excellent team of scientists” for the results that “contribute to a major advance in a region where we know so little”.

“I love new species,” Tunnicliffe said in an email. “Each tells a different story about adapting to a unique and specialized habitat. A name can help with general adjustments, but ‘new’ means something that is indeed novel.”

A brownish-yellow starfish, lying on the ocean floor and half buried in the sand.  It has five visible appendages, all long and thin.
A Zoroaster starfish is considered a new discovery. (DeepCCZ Expedition/Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation/NOAA)

The CCZ is of particular interest to scientists, partly because so much of its ecosystem remains undocumented, but also because it is rich in extremely valuable minerals used in modern technology, including cobalt, nickel, manganese and copper.

These minerals are key to powering green technologies like wind turbines and electric cars. According to Bribiesca-Contreras, companies are already monitoring the area as a possible location for deep-sea mining.

A woman wearing a hard hat and yellow rubber suit faces the camera with a wide, open-mouthed smile as she digs through a bucket of seabed mud on board a boat.
Guadalupe Bribiesca-Contreras is a postdoctoral researcher in deep-sea systematics and ecology at the Natural History Museum in London, England. (Submitted by Guadalupe Bribiesca-Contreras)

“Obviously there is a lot of commercial interest in the area. And while no exploitation is currently taking place, there is much exploration by parties interested in exploiting the resource,” she said.

“So it’s very, very important that we as scientists understand the ecosystem. And the first thing to really understand the ecosystem is to know exactly what lives down there, [and] to describe the diversity.”

Tunnicliffe estimates that up to 80 percent of the megafauna in this part of the ocean are still unknown to scientists.

“Biodiversity loss is a big problem,” she said.

Once scientists get a better picture of deep-sea life, Bribiesca-Contreras says they can begin to identify which areas should be set aside for marine conservation.

“This is part of a massive effort by scientists around the world that we’re all rushing to describe the ecosystems down there,” she said.

“We definitely have to keep exploring.”

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Aloysius Wong.

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