“Barbie pigs” among strange and possibly new to science species in the Pacific Ocean

Barbie pink sea pigs, rattail fish and a unicorn: these were the unexpected stars of a recent expedition to the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) where scientists study biodiversity. The region’s wildlife is of particular interest as it is also the proposed site for deep-sea mining, which is home to a huge amount of ‘sea potatoes’ containing the precious metals we need for the green revolution.

Amperima “sea pigs” and “unicummbers” were perhaps the most alien creatures captured on camera by the team led by Dr. Adrian Glover, a deep-sea researcher at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London. This included the bright pink “Barbie pig”, whose nickname was coined by Southampton PhD student Bethany Fleming after most of the team watched the film on the plane to Costa Rica. The curious creatures may even be new to science, making their debut in these first-ever high-definition photos.

“We can assume that many of these species will be new to science,” Regen Drennan, a postdoctoral marine biologist at London’s NHM, told IFLScience. “Sometimes they have been seen/observed/known before, but not collected or formally described. For example, the sea pig nicknamed ‘unicummber’ had been seen in previous seabed surveys, but not collected or imaged in high definition, to the best of our knowledge. knowledge.”

“All specimens collected will be returned to the museum where they will be identified and studied by the researchers here,” added Eva Stewart, also a postdoctoral marine biologist at the NHM. “Some can be described as new species, and many of the specimens will be used to investigate diversity patterns across the seafloor in this area.”

The team also saw rattail fish, one of the few vertebrates that can survive at such great depths. The expedition traveled 4,000-5,000 meters (13,000-16,000 feet) below the surface of the central Pacific Ocean as part of the SMARTEX project to explore the CCZ, monitoring what remarkable life exists here.

It is a matter of global importance because of the large fields of sea potatoes, also known as deep-sea tubers or manganese tubers, found here. These black rocks may not look like much, but they are one of the richest known sources of cobalt, nickel and manganese on Earth: three things we’ll need a lot of if we want to change everything. The planet’s gas-guzzling cars are being turned into cars on batteries.


The “Unicummber”, a transparent sea cucumber.

Image credits: © #NHMDeepSea Group, Natural History Museum, UK

“[Ninety] percent of the world’s nodule exploration contracts are in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, which represents less than half of 1 percent of the global seabed,” The Metals Company PR and Media Manager Rory Usher told IFLScience. “But this represents the largest source of manganese, nickel and cobalt anywhere in the world, dwarfing anything on land by many orders of magnitude. There are plenty of metals on the spot at two of the sites that would meet the needs of 280 million cars, which amounts to every car in America, or a quarter of the world’s fleet.”

Deep-sea mining aims to harvest these nodules by scooping them from the seabed and transporting them to the surface. The motivation for exploring for these seabed resources is that they represent a purer resource that would cause less runoff compared to land mining. It also likely has less biomass per square meter compared to the forests of Indonesia, a leading location for mining.

“The distribution of these animals appeared to be quite patchy – the dominant sea cucumber during one ROV dive may be completely absent at another location, while another is more common,” Drennan continued. “But in terms of the density we are used to, for example on land or in shallower marine systems, the deep sea in general (and this area of ​​the CCZ) is characterized by very low population density, largely because food is so limited there . depths.”

rattail fish

Rattail fish, one of the few vertebrates that can survive at these depths.

Image credits: © #NHMDeepSea Group, Natural History Museum, UK

“So even if we are talking about a ‘dominant’ species, the numbers are still relatively low. What will be important to understand is the presence of species at large scales, and the connectivity between populations at these large scales.”

Before we can start picking up these precious potatoes, much research needs to be done to determine whether disturbing the seabed and creating plumes of sediment in this otherwise pristine environment could negatively impact the survival of wildlife and ecosystems. That’s one of the things SMARTEX – or Seabed Mining and Resilience to Experimental Impact – hopes to establish.

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