Over 100 Never-Before-Seen Species Discovered Along Deep Sea Mountain Range

A Chaunax, a genus of bony fish in the sea toad family Chaunacidae
A Chaunax, a genus of bony fish in the sea toad family Chaunacidae, is seen at a depth of 1,388 meters (4,553 feet) on a seamount inside the Nazca-Desventuradas Marine Park. Image credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

Some 3000 meters underwater off the coast of Chile, striking purple, green, and orange sponges burst from the rocks. Sea urchins with maroon spines gather in colonies, while poppy-colored crustaceans pick their way among them. Transparent, ghostly creatures undulate in the dark. A team of researchers captured these and dozens of other never-before-seen species—more than 100 in total—with a camera mounted to a deep-sea robot traversing largely explored underwater mountains, known as seamounts, with steep cliffs that rise from the sea floor.

A rarely-seen whiplash squid
A rarely-seen whiplash squid (Mastigoteuthis) documented at 1,105 meters (3,625 feet) depth. Image credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

Researchers from the Schmidt Ocean Institute recorded footage up to 4500 meters deep near the Nazca and Salas y Gómez ridges, which together stretch more than 3000 kilometers. Along with the variety of new organisms—including sponges, amphipods, urchins, crustaceans, and corals—the team mapped four seamounts in Chilean waters that were previously unknown to scientists, they report today in a press release. The tallest of these measured 3530 meters from sea floor to peak and was unofficially named Solito by the researchers.

Parts of these seamounts owe their extensive biodiversity largely to their status as protected marine parks, the researchers note. Large stretches of the region are protected by the Juan Fernández and Nazca-Desventuradas marine parks, administered by Chile. In addition to photographs, the robot also captured some of these deep-sea denizens, which will be used to identify their species or classify them as new ones. The new species could help scientists learn more about the broader region’s intricate lineages, as well as the evolutionary twists and turns that shaped them.

The discoveries come from an international group of scientists who recently explored the seamounts along the Nazca and Salas y Gómez Ridge, a 2,900-kilometer (1,800-mile) long chain of underwater mountains that stretches from offshore Chile to Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island.

A squat lobster
A squat lobster – likely to be a new species – documented in coral at a depth of 669 meters (2,194 feet). Image credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

Led by Dr Javier Sellanes of the Universidad Católica del Norte, the scientists used an underwater robot to cruise to depths of 4,500 meters (14,763 feet) below sea level and collect data from 10 of the 200 seamounts.

A seamount is an underwater mountain with steep sides that are typically the remnants of extinct volcanoes. These fascinating features often become hives of biodiversity since they provide wildlife with a solid surface to live upon, supplying them with food and nutrients.

Oblong Dermechinus urchins documented
Oblong Dermechinus urchins documented at a depth of 516 meters (1,692 feet). Image credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

“These thriving and healthy ecosystems indicate that the Nazca-Desventuradas and Juan Fernández Marine Parks effectively protect delicate marine habitats,” explained Sellanes.

To confirm which species have never been identified before, the team is closely analyzing the specimens’ physiology and genetics to confirm whether they are, indeed, new to science.

“Full species identification can take many years, and Dr Sellanes and his team have an incredible number of samples from this amazingly beautiful and little-known biodiversity hotspot,” explained Dr Jyotika Virmani, Schmidt Ocean Institute Executive Director.

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