ECOMAR – Press Release

Scientists have just returned from a voyage with samples of rare animals and more than 10 possible new species in a trip which they say has revolutionised their thinking about deep-sea life in the Atlantic Ocean.

Basket Star - Euryalid Ophiuroid-Gorgonocephalus sp. from Sea Mount on Mid Atlantic Ridge - Courtesy of David Shale.

Scale worm - Courtesy of David Shale

One group of creatures they observed – and captured – during their six weeks in the Atlantic aboard the RRS James Cook is believed to be close to the missing evolutionary link between backboned and invertebrate animals.

Using the latest technology they also saw species in abundance that until now had been considered rare.

Researchers were also surprised to discover such diversity in habitat and marine life in locations just a few miles apart.

Scientists were completing the last leg of MAR-ECO – an international research programme, part of the Census of Marine Life, which is enhancing 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 involves scientists from 16 nations.  Key collaborators in the UK include Newcastle University and the National Oceanography Centre.

During more than 300 hours of diving – using Isis the UK’s deepest diving remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to depths of between 700m right down to 3,600m – researchers surveyed flat plains, cliff faces and slopes of the giant mountain range that divides the Atlantic Ocean into two halves, east and west.

The research was focused in two areas – beneath the cold waters north of the Gulf Stream and the warmer waters to the south.

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 west the cliffs faced east and in the east the cliffs faced west. The terrain looked the same, mirror images of each other, but that is where the similarity ended. It seemed like we were in a scene from Alice Through the Looking Glass.

“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.  The north-west plains were the home of deep-sea enteropneust acorn worms. Only a few specimens, from the Pacific Ocean, were previously known to science.

“These worms are members of a little-known group of animals close to the missing link in evolution between backboned and invertebrate animals.

“The creatures were observed feeding and leaving characteristic spiral traces on the sea floor.

“They have no eyes, no obvious sense organs or brain but there is a head end, tail end and the primitive body plan of back-boned animals is established.  One was observed showing rudimentary swimming behaviour.

“By the end of the expedition three different species were discovered  each with a different colour, pink, purple and white with distinctly different shapes.”

Pink enteropneust - Courtesy of David Shale

Purple enteropneust - Courtesy of David Shale

White enteropneust - Courtesy of David Shale

Using the remotely operated vehicle, high quality complete specimens of all three different-coloured species were captured and will be sent to specialists for further investigations.

Sea cucumbers, or holothurians, normally seen crawling incredibly slowly over the flat abyssal plains of the ocean floor, were found on steep slopes, small ledges and rock faces of the underwater mountain range.

Researchers were also surprised to see that they were very able and fast moving swimmers and unique video sequences were recorded of swimming holothurians.

Holothurian, Amperima sp - Courtesy of David Shale

Holothurian, Amperima sp2 - Courtesy of David Shale

Professor Priede said: “This expedition has 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 of the Ocean.

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

Dr Andrey Gebruk, Shirshov Institute, Moscow, said: “We were surprised how species, elsewhere considered rare, were found in abundance on the Mid Atlantic Ridge and we were finding new species up to the last minute of the last dive in the voyage.”

Holothurian, Deima validum validum - Courtesy of David Shale

Dr Daniel Jones, National Oceanography Centre Southampton, surveyed over 50,000 square metres of sea floor in high definition detail and said:  “We successfully completed one of the most detailed video surveys of the deep sea ever attempted.  The Isis ROV with its cutting-edge technology gives us the potential to understand more and more of the mysterious deep sea environment.”

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.”

Bathypelagic ctenophore from benthic boundary layer - Courtesy of David Shale

Deepsea jellyfish that forages near the sea floor - Courtesy of David Shale

  • This voyage was part of the UK contribution to the Census of Marine Life (http://www.coml.org/)  programme MARECO (http://www.mar-eco.no/).  This was the last in a series of four annual voyages undertaken since 2007 investigating all aspects of life over the Mid Atlantic Ridge.
  • The ROV Isis can work at depths of 6000 metres — full ocean depth. The vehicle is maintained by the National Oceanography Centre Southampton  on behalf of UK science and scientists.

Notes to Editors

Scientists who were on the expedition and are available for interview are:

Professor Monty Priede, University of Aberdeen, tel: +44 (0)1224 274408

Mobile +44 (0) 7775866971

i.g.priede@abdn.ac.uk

Dr Daniel Jones, National Oceanography Centre.

Tel +44 (0) 23 8059 6357

Professor Andrew Gooday, National Oceanography Centre.

Tel +44 (0) 23 80596353/6362

Dr Marsh Youngbluth, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, USA

Tel +1 772 567 2476

Youngbluth@hboi.edu OR Youngbluth@yahoo.com

Dr Andrey Gebruk, PP Shirshov Institute of Oceanology. Moscow. Russia

Tel +7 499 1248504

Email: agebruk@ocean.ru

Dr Ben Wigham, Newcastle University

Tel. +44 (0)191 222 3054

Email: ben.wigham@ncl.ac.uk

*Please note that Professor Monty Priede will not have any of the samples with him but there are plenty of high res still images.

Pictures must credit Courtesy of David Shale.

** Please note moving images will be available at a later date but are not yet available.

Scientists aboard the RSS James Cook: Monty Priede, Principal Scientist, University of Aberdeen. UK; Phil Bagley, University of Aberdeen, UK; Mark Shields, University of Aberdeen, UK; Thomas Linley, University of Aberdeen, UK; Jessica Craig, University of Aberdeen, UK; Ian Douglas, University of Aberdeen, UK; Deborah Crockard, University of Aberdeen, UK; Andrew Gooday, National Oceanography Centre Southampton, UK; Daniel Jones, National Oceanography Centre Southampton, UK; Benjamin Boorman, National Oceanography Centre Southampton, UK; Claudia Alt, National Oceanography Centre Southampton, UK; Grant Duffy, National Oceanography CentreSouthampton, UK; Andrey Gebruk, Shirshov Institute, Moscow, Russia; Antonina Rogacheva, Shirshov Institute, Moscow, Russia; Marsh Youngbluth, Harbor Branch, USA; Benjamin Wigham, Newcastle University, UK; Geoffrey Wigham, University of Plymouth, UK; Helena Wiklund, Natural History Museum, London, UK; Pedro Ribeiro, University of Azores,  Portugal; David Shale, freelance wildlife photographer, UK.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to give a big thank you to all the officers and crew of the James Cook for all their support during JC048. Without your offshore expertise and willingness to help the cruise would not have been the success it was. Furthermore we are very grateful to all the technical support provided by everyone involved from National Marine Facilities. During the cruise we relyed on a variety of sampling equipment and without the technical knowledge and support provided we would never have had the same success with the equipment deployed. Invertebrate specimens in excellent condition were collected from the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean and these successful collections were solely down to the skilled operators of the ROV Isis. We are grateful to our colleagues at the Ocean Sciences Centre, Memorial University for helping to address some pre-cruise logistical issues. We were provided with daily satellite weather reports from our ECOMAR partners at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and these reports proved invaluable for day to day science planning. Finally we would like to thank the UK Natural Environment Research Council for funding ECOMAR and JC048.

On behalf of all scientist involved in JC048 we would like to state how very grateful we are to everyone who contributed to the success of the cruise.

The ECOMAR Team

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Saturday 3rd July 2010

There had been much excitement onboard as we neared the Spanish coastline. After all it had been over 5 weeks since we last saw land.

On Friday evening the sea was flat calm and all around us there was evidence of the presence of whales from the fountain of water they exhaled from their blow holes. Eventually we got lucky and a pair of minke whales swam right in front of the James Cook and came within 50 metres of the vessel. We were all snapping like crazy with our cameras in the hope to capturinh an image of these magnificent animals.

Blow hole fountain

Minke whale

As the evening progressed we gathered on the starboard deck, enjoying our final sunset of the cruise and reflecting on the last few weeks at sea.  It was then that a pod of common dolphins appeared and began to leap and splash. It was a fitting end to the cruise.

When I awoke on the Saturday morning and looked out of the porthole I could see land for the first time. We were off the coast of Spain waiting for our pilot to navigate us into the port of Vigo. As we sailed into Vigo we passed the Cies Islands, a national nature reserve only 40 minutes by ferry from Vigo. We would later visit the islands on the Sunday.  

RRS James Cook docked in Vigo

Cies Island on our Sunday visit

Once we docked in Vigo we had to begin organising our gear to be lifted of the vessel by crane and loaded onto lorries destined for the UK.  After we had emptied all the laboratories we then had to clean them all, making sure that everything was left in the same clean and tidy state that we found it.  By late afternoon all our equipment was finished being unloaded and we were free to go and check into our hotels and explore Vigo. We did not really know what to expect from Vigo with it being a port town but everyone was pleasantly surprised by how beautiful the countryside and city was. I went for a nice long walk enjoying the freedom of being back on land and the experience of exploring a new place.

Mark Shields

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Friday 2nd July 2010

We are on the return leg now, only a days steaming away from Vigo, Spain, where the James Cook will dock. Everyone is busy packing away their volumous, generally fragile, scientific equipment and finishing off the last-minute jobs before they return. Many are copying vital ancillary data from various computers around the ship, such as navigation and oceanographic data, that will provide a context for their work. We have been so successful at collecting video data that these are proving the most difficult to copy – there are nearly 10 terabytes of video taking many days to backup completely. All the samples of various deep-water animals have been preserved and carefully packed up for their journey back to the UK in the ship. The larger equipment (including ISIS) will be loaded onto a large lorry in Vigo and transported back to the UK by road. The few people who have finished packing and documenting their activities are on deck enjoying some of the first sunshine of the cruise.

Earlier on in the day we all presented the work we have been doing over the last six weeks in the conference room on board. It was good to remind each other of exactly why we have been running around on the ship desperately trying to gather as much scientific data as possible. It was impressive to see the amount of information that has been collected and the initial insights on a whole variety of biological processes that have been already obtained. Of course, there is still a huge amount of work to do at home to analyse and interpret the data and to write the work up for other scientists to be able to see what we did. It was also a good opportunity for the ROV team to see how all their hard work paid off putting into practice the apparently impossible, or at least very optimistic, dreams of the scientists! After all, without the help and expertise of the technical experts onboard, none of the science would be possible.

Only 12 hours to go…

Daniel Jones

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Thursday 1st July 2010

On the first day of the mid summer month the James Cook was on a transit, leaving behind the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and heading to Vigo, the port where our cruise will end up. Usually during a cruise, transit is a time of relaxation, but not when the cruise is about to end. Our thoughts these days are occupied with cruise reports and presentations for the final scientific meeting tomorrow. This is also the case with my own thoughts. I am reflecting  on the new species of holothurians we have collected or missed to collect but observed on the ROV dives. I study this taxon with Antonina Rogacheva who is also on board. I realised at some stage, it is a unique case having two experts on the same taxon of deep-sea invertebrates on board. Someone may feel that holothurians have received an excessive attention on this cruise, it can be true, but not because the two of us were determined to get more and more new specimens, rather because these animals are so abundant and often dominant in the deep-sea. So it was in our study areas. Among holothurians that were sampled using the ROV Isis on this cruise a number of species appeared to be new to science. These include one species of Ellipinion and one of Peniagone, both genera from the family Elpidiidae. It is not a surprise when finding new species in the deep-sea, unusual would be not discovering them. A big surprise was that both these species are among most abundant animals in the ECOMAR study areas. However, we were able to understand this only after many hours spent in the ROV control room surveying the seafloor. Also these animals are very delicate and gelatinous, almost like medusas. It means they easily can be overlooked in trawl catches simply because they disintegrate fast. Therefore, to collect these animals and to understand how important they are, one has to use equipment such as an ROV.

New species of Ellipinion at the seabed

New species of Peniagone at the seabed.

We also have collected several other species of holothurians that most likely are new to science. We shall be able to understand this only after proper microscopical studies back at our institute. The potential new species may occur among laetmogonid and synallactid holothurians that we collected. Those were regularly observed on a steep slope among or even on rocky outcrops –  a habitat not known as common for deep-sea holothurians. Again without the ROV we would never be able to sample such habitats.

Several other potential new species were seen during our video surveys but we did not find them on our collection dives. On the other hand, other species that looked unfamiliar to us, were escaping when we tried to collect them – they simply swam away. Swimming is an adaptation that gives obvious advantage to these animals in the environment of the mid-ocean ridge with a very rough topography, steep slopes and strong currents that can easily wash the animal away from the seabedf. We have learned on this cruise that swimming is much more common among deep-sea holothurians than thought before but this will be another story.

Andrey Gebruk

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Tuesday 29th June 2010

Giant protozoans!

Today was the day that the science finished and we started the long trek to Vigo. The ROV had gone into the water the previous evening for its last outing of the cruise, devoted mainly to the collection of mid-water animals. However, we – the benthic biologists – were allowed the final two hours of the dive for a frantic effort to collect some important benthic animals that had eluded capture. These were mainly tiny semi-transparent holothurians that were very difficult to pick out on the video screens against the background of the seafloor. But Andrey is an expert on these creatures and  he spotted several of them, virtually invisible to the rest of us peering at the screens, which we were able to capture with the slurp gun. Then it was time for the ROV to lift off and return to the ship. We were given a great send off from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge by a beautiful red shrimp, which put on a wonderful display in front of the ROV, swimming powerfully with its long, delicate antennae streaming out behind it in two parallel lines.

The dive over, I spent most of the rest of the day tending my collection of xenophyophores. These giant protozoans construct a ‘test’ up to 10-cm or more in size from particles that they pick up from the seafloor – pretty impressive for a single cell. Recent analyses of their DNA reveals that at least some xenophyophores are foraminiferans. Several species of this ‘protozoan megafauna’ have appeared regularly in videos and still photographs of the seafloor throughout the cruise. The most common species has a dome-shaped test covered in what appear to be small holes. These are actually openings in an intricate lattice of tubes that make up the structure of the test. In seafloor images, the holes are often partly obscured by a coating of sediment, probably trapped by the organism as a source of food. The elegant test of another species (?Homogammina sp.) comprises smooth, rounded, sinuous ridges and lobes. From some angles it resembles a piece of modern sculpture. Xenophyophore tests are often extremely fragile and the ones that we have been collecting can be cut through with a piece of stiff paper. If you touch them they crumble, so removing specimens from the surfaces of cores is a tricky operation. Having recovered them intact, it is necessary to photograph the tests before they fall apart.

?Homogammina sp. From Dive 179

Syringammina fragillissima from Dive 178

The most common xenophyophore in the ECOMAR area is called Syringammina fragilissima, a particularly appropriate name for such a delicate creature. This species is widely distributed at bathyal depths around Western Europe, but this is the first record of it from a central oceanic area. We also collected one specimen of a second Syringammina species that I have seen in the Whittard Canyon, the SW of Ireland. So there appear to be close links between the xenophyophore faunas on this part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and those around the margins of Western Europe.

Andy Gooday

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Monday 28th June 2010

I am writing this just having complete the process  of the catch of the last dive of the cruise. That was a very busy day. We had two dives, almost one immediately after the other, exploring the cliffs, slopes and flat areas and collecting specimens.  As usual we collected the most common animals that will help us to identify them on the video transects.  One of our achievements is that we collected a fully intact specimen of an enteropneust (acorn worm), the first whole specimen that has been ever collected and preserved, thanks to Dave Edge!

Many benthic and benthopelagic animals leave trails of their activity on the seafloor  which often described by the german word «lebensspurren». Studying these trails is resembles a job a pathfinder. These trails can say many interesting things about life in the deep sea: what animals are living here, what are they doing and how they are feeding. For burrowing animals lebenspurren are the only evidence of their presence in the studied area.

Some lebensspurren are well known and recognizable. Echinoids leave long narrow trails by their long spines and feeding on organic matter in the sediment:

Echinoid trail

 Holothurians leave their faeces:

Holothurian faeces

Some fish also leave trails while staying on the seabed:

Fish trail

Echiurid or spoon worms are burrowing worms that put out of burrow their long proboscis looking for food. Their proboscis can stretch to one metre in length leaving amazing star –shaped trails on the seabed.

Echiuran burrow and feeding traces

The spiral trail of an acorn worm.

Spiral trace of an acorn worm

But sometime we observed something mysterious.

Mysterioud mound

These trails are very similar to «fairy rings» – enigmatic trails on the Porcupine Abyssal Plain in the North-East Atlantic. It represents a hill sometime almost a 1 m in diameter surrounding by large holes. After tens years of their observation it is still unknown what animal could make it.

On the South-East site we also find some enigmatic trails.

Mysterious trail

These trails could reach a few metres in length and resemble giant stitches.

There are many intriguing things at the deep sea that are waiting for being discovered and explained.

Tonya Rogacheva

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