An international crew of 40 scientists aboard a Marine National Facility research vessel is only half-way through an ambitious voyage off the eastern coast of Australia to learn more about the strange and wonderful creatures that live in the partly unexplored abyssal waters some 2.5 miles (4,000 meters) below the surface — and they already have collected a marvelous menagerie of prehistoric marine oddities.
“We’ve got 27 scientists on board who are leaders in their fields and they tell me that around one-third of what we’ve found are new species,” said chief scientist Tim O’Hara from Museums Victoria, in a report by AFP.
Using deep-sea cameras, sonar, and nets, the crew has collected blind sea spiders that breathe through their shells, meat-eating sponges, dragon fish that glow red, and a faceless fish.
“There were thousands of brittle stars and sea stars, a penis worm (Priapulida) and lots of purple people eaters (an affectionate term for a type of holothuroid, or sea cucumber) that made up the bulk of the catch,” Merrick Ekins of Queensland Museum told onboard blogger Asher Flatt. “We also had one hundred of the same type of anemone, which, when fixed in ethanol, looked like a toilet roll.”
The faceless fish, which was first collected in 1873 by the pioneering science crew of the HMS Challenger, has been the highlight of the journey so far.
“It’s this fish with nostrils and a mouth and no face,” said Di Bray from Museums Victoria in an ABC News report. “Apparently, it’s got eyes way under the surface but really you can’t see any eyes.”
While not a new species, the faceless fish is rare and the crew thinks its catch is the largest ever seen. They have christened it the ‘Faceless Cusk,’ according to Blogging the Abyss.
Creatures living in the abyss have adapted in unique ways to a freezing cold, lightless environment of extreme pressures and scarce prey. Some produce their own light with bioluminescence and most are small and slow-moving.
Back in the laboratory, scientists will analyze the DNA and chemistry of the samples they collected to get a better understanding of evolutionary links and the deep-sea food chain.
“The data gathered on this trip will be crucial to understanding Australia’s deep-sea habitats, their biodiversity and the ecological processes that sustain them,” said O’Hara in a statement. “This will assist in its conservation and management and help to protect it from the impacts of climate change pollution and other human activity.”