Thousands of meters deep in the Pacific Ocean, in the hostile environment for human life represented by the abyssal zone, an unsuspected animal biodiversity teems. This fauna, in one of the most unknown and darkest corners of the Earth, has not been cataloged and has barely been studied. A new investigation led by the Natural History Museum of London (United Kingdom) adds more than 5,000 different species of creatures that inhabit the ocean abyss, after multiple studies of the seabed and a review of scientific articles. And all of this just in a highly coveted underwater region of the Pacific, the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), between Hawaii and Mexico. And the lead author of it, Muriel Rabone, a data analyst in the London museum’s work team, maintains, after admitting her initial surprise at so much biodiversity, that “90% of the animals are still unknown.”
“A lot of worms, crabs, snails and clams, but also rarer animals, such as molluscs that were thought to be extinct for three decades and were hardly found in the deep sea,” says Guadalupe Bribiesca-Contreras, a researcher at the British museum and also study co-author. In the conclusions, the researchers point out that the rich animal biodiversity of the area could mean thousands of more unlisted species to study. But “naming a single new species can take us several years of taxonomic work”, Muriel resigns herself.
One of the animals discovered on the bottom of the Pacific, in the Clarion-Clipperton area.SMARTEX PROJECT, NATURAL ENVIRONMENT RESEARCH COUNCIL
The authors of the paper do not hide the fact that their interest in biodiversity in the Pacific abyssal zone is due to the impact that mining of rare materials could have on the seabed. This research comes to light at a time when maritime surveys are being carried out to find out the availability of rare earth extraction, known as polymetallic nodules, which are accumulations of cobalt, copper and nickel in rock, among other key elements. in the manufacture of electronic devices.
This novel categorization of the creatures of the abyssal zone is published today in the scientific journal Current Biology, and provides information about life in this remote region, a vast space of six million square kilometers -twice the extension of India- and a seabed of thousands of kilometers without exploring. “From an evolutionary point of view, perhaps this is how life began, in one of these ecosystems,” Muriel reflects on her interest behind this publication. Her group analyzed previously published information to detect gaps in knowledge and rule out duplicate records of animals, and managed to name 438 species, only 6 of which could be found in other deep-sea beds on the planet.
One of the new species of sea urchin recorded by the project.SMARTEX PROJECT, NATURAL ENVIRONMENT RESEARCH COUNCIL
In their analysis, the scientists point out that deep sea mining has a key geostrategic interest in the new global economy, since the ecological transition to achieve decarbonization requires these materials for the construction of mobile phones, television screens, solar panels or electric cars. Deep-sea mining is currently prohibited beyond national jurisdiction, but interested companies are already carrying out exploratory work to learn about the mineral wealth of the environment. “If a nodule is extracted tomorrow, and the habitat of any of these deep-sea animals disappears, could it recover? It is necessary to know the potential impact of deep mining”, reflects Muriel.
Abyssal animals adhere to these nodules, such as attaching themselves to a rock, to avoid the muddier ocean floor, explains Bribiesca-Contreras: “They could not survive without the presence of nodules in the area, they represent the largest source of substrate hard in that particular area.” For the scientist from the London museum, discovering how these creatures adapt to extreme conditions is like unraveling the tree of life: “The animals of the abyssal zones are the long branches [del árbol de la vida]the oldest lineages, a very interesting thing”, he comments enthusiastically.
“Everything comes out dead”
The biologist explains that in the abyssal plain there are “seamounts” thousands of kilometers deep, where “the species are different in each section of the rocky outcrops.” This means that the animals “are adapted to their ecological niches.” “We cannot get them out of the bottom and put them in an aquarium, that is impossible; almost everything comes out dead [al extraer especies del fondo marino]mainly because they can’t stand the temperature change, so we can’t know how they live, move or reproduce”, he laments.
One of the species discovered on the seabed.SMARTEX PROJECT, NATURAL ENVIRONMENT RESEARCH COUNCIL
The geologist Antonio Miguel Calafat, who has not participated in this study, affirms that “there are few works done and less in the Clarion-Clipperton area.” “The problem with the exploitation of such deep areas is that the nodules are dispersed and very large prospecting areas have to be removed, whole tons,” explains the scientist, specialized in coasts and seas. A process that, in addition to “directly affecting animals that do not move”, the professor explains that “produces the resuspension of sediments”. In other words, a waste stain that can affect many more animal populations thousands of kilometers from the mining operation, because due to its size it is not deposited at the extraction site and currents can transport it to other places.
For the scientist, deep mining, whether dragging or lifting the bottom, affects species even decades after the incident and, as he explains, it has not yet been produced with a non-invasive procedure. “In these environments, deep-sea animals grow very slowly and their response capacity to disturbance is very low,” warns Calafat.
The two scientists of the study underline the need that in order to protect an ecosystem it is necessary to know it. Rabone insists that his CCZ compilation index is just the start of a new line of work into the world of deep-sea animals, about which very little is still known. Bribiesca-Contreras insists on his evolutionary approach to deep creatures: “There are many questions that we would like to be able to answer, things as simple as how long do these animals live, with their extremely slow metabolism to conserve energy? Or how do they reproduce, what larvae do they have? It’s really hard to know.”
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