A deep-sea robot may have discovered more than 100 new species

Dr. Seuss couldn’t make this up.

Forests of ancient corals. Clusters of undersea urchins with cactus-like spines, as if a desert were flooded. Gardens of glassy sponges clinging to the slopes of an underwater mountain range rising thousands of feet above the seabed.

Deep-sea researchers searching beneath the waves off the coast of Chile may have found more than 100 species completely new to science.

In January and February 2024, more than a hundred potentially new species were discovered off the Chilean coast by deep-sea researchers. (Video: Schmidt Ocean Institute)

The potential discovery of the new creatures on ten seamounts in the southeastern Pacific Ocean not only contributes to a better understanding of the enormous diversity of life in the ocean. For researchers, it shows how ocean protections introduced by the Chilean government are helping to strengthen biodiversity, an encouraging sign for other countries looking to protect their marine waters.

“Every single seamount had a different type of ecosystem,” says Hannah Nolan, an expedition and community outreach specialist for the Schmidt Ocean Institute, a nonprofit oceanographic research organization that undertook the expedition.

14,000 feet under the sea

Using an underwater robot that can descend more than 4,000 meters, the research team worked from January 8 to February 11 to bring specimens from the depths to the surface. A geologically active region, the southeastern Pacific Ocean is dotted with hydrothermal vents that support a wide range of life.

Only after analyzing the animals’ body structure and genes in a land laboratory can scientists determine whether these creatures are truly a new species.

The journey along the seamounts that stretch from the coast of South America to Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, was a jackpot for sea sponges, says Javier Sellanes, a scientist at the Universidad Católica del Norte who led the study. “Previously only two species were correctly reported for the area and now we have found about 40 different species,” he said.

Potentially new-to-science marine life includes ghostly white sponges and lobsters with beady eyes and barbed feet, along with corals, urchins, starfish and sea lilies.

Video recorded in January and February 2024 from seamounts off the coast of Chile shows corals, urchins, starfish and sea lilies that are likely new to science. (Video: Schmidt Ocean Institute)

The team examined two marine parks – Juan Fernández and Nazca-Desventuradas – where Chile has restricted fishing. But they also searched areas outside the country’s national waters — a part of the ocean called the high seas where no government has jurisdiction.

Ocean advocates want to protect those seamounts protect international waters from overfishing and deep-sea mining by establishing a new marine protected area under a United Nations treaty signed last year. Countries around the world are aiming to protect 30 percent of the planet’s oceans by the end of this decade to prevent the extinction of Earth’s remaining wild plants and animals.

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