“Lost world” found by Somerville don

A team of researchers, led by a professor at the University Department of Zoology, has discovered a number of deep-sea creatures previously unknown to science.

Somerville tutor Professor Alex Rogers and his team used a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) to explore a system of hydrothermal vents around the East Scotia Ridge, two kilometres below the surface of the Southern Ocean.

“Hydrothermal vents are home to animals found nowhere else on the planet that get their energy not from the Sun but from breaking down chemicals, such as hydrogen sulphide,” Rogers said. “The first survey of these particular vents, in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica, has revealed a hot, dark, ‘lost world’ in which whole communities of previously unknown marine organisms thrive.”

Their discoveries include a new variety of Yeti crab, predatory sea stars, anemones, barnacles, snails and an unidentified species of octopus.

The findings are particularly interesting because many of the species observed are unique to these particular vents, while many species seen regularly at other locations were not present. “These discoveries have completely changed our ideas about the distribution of vent species”, said Rogers. The team, which includes researchers from Oxford and Southampton Universities, the National Oceanography Centre and the British Antarctic Survey, theorises that the Southern Ocean acts as a barrier preventing their spread.

They faced icebergs and 16 metre-high waves to reach the area, even before they located the vents. “There were breaths held as the vents came into sight and then cheers”, Rogers added, describing the experience of watching the ROV’s first journey as “like being at a football match”.

Rogers said his favourite discovery was “definitely the Yeti crab […] they’re pugnacious, tough, and very fascinating”. The crabs, named for the long, hair-like filaments on their arms, live in large colonies on the vents and “farm” bacteria as a foodstuff.  Their hairy chests led to them being nicknamed “Hoff” crabs, after hirsute Baywatch star David Hasselhoff. The males were known as “beachmasters”.

Though Hasselhoff tweeted enthusiastically: “It used to be a bad thing to have crabs! Allow me to introduce the newest crab on the planet!”, there are as of yet no plans for the crabs to officially be named in his honour.

Despite their success, Rogers believes more work is to be done. “Vents are the best studied deep-water ecosystem. Yet in the space of a single 8 week expedition we have turned understanding of their biogeography on its head”. He expressed his hope to return to the Antarctic and continue his research.

The research is published online at PLoS Biology under the title “The Discovery of New Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vent Communities in the Southern Ocean and Implications for Biogeography”.