Tuesday, July 20, 2010


An exploration to the bottom of the sea has uncovered a new species which scientists believe could be one of the missing evolutionary links between backboned and invertebrate animals.

The team – made up of experts from 16 nations and including scientists from Newcastle University – has just returned from a six-week research trip aboard the RRS James Cook.

Among the finds were a possible 10 new species as well as rare marine animals such as the deep-sea enteropneust acorn worms – a creature which has no eyes, no obvious sense organs or brain but has a defined head end, tail end and the primitive body plan of back-boned animals.

The expedition was the final leg of MAR-ECO - an international research programme set up to enhance our understanding of the occurrence, distribution and ecology of animals along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between Iceland and the Azores.

The University of Aberdeen is leading the UK contribution to the project which includes Newcastle University and the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton.

Newcastle University's Dr Ben Wigham has been working on the project for the past four years, studying the biology of animals living on the ridge.

“We are interested in how these animals are feeding in areas of the deep-sea where food is often scarce,” he said.

“The differences we see in the diversity of species and numbers of individuals may well be related to how they are able to process and share out a rather common but meagre food supply. We certainly see indications that there are differences between the north and south regions of the ridge.”

During more than 300 hours of diving to depths of 3,600m using 'Isis' - the UK’s deepest diving remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) - the team surveyed flat plains, cliff faces and slopes of the giant mountain range that divides the Atlantic Ocean into two halves, east and west.

Professor Monty Priede, Director of the University of Aberdeen’s Oceanlab, said: “We were surprised at how different the animals were on either side of the ridge which is just tens of miles apart.

“In the north-east, sea urchins were dominant on the flat plains and the cliffs were colourful and rich with sponges, corals and other life. In the north-west, the cliffs were dull grey bare rock with much less life."

Professor Priede said the expedition had "revolutionised our thinking about deep-sea life in the Atlantic Ocean".

"It shows that we cannot just study what lives around the edges of the ocean and ignore the vast array of animals living on the slopes and valleys in the middle," he said.

“Using new technology and precise navigation we can access these regions and discover things we never suspected existed.”

(Photo: Newcastle U.)

Newcastle University

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