The results are in from Nekton Mission I – the XL Catlin Deep Ocean Survey – and its discoveries are already changing the way we view the ocean.
Launched in July 2016, the XL Catlin Deep Ocean Survey is Nekton’s first multidisciplinary scientific research expedition to investigate the state of the deep ocean in the NW Atlantic, focusing on Bermuda. The deep ocean mission has revealed more than 100 new marine species and confirms there is a new zone in the ocean, the Rariphotic Zone (Rare Light Zone) from 130metres to 300metres.
Challenging Our Assumptions on Biodiversity
Alex Rogers, Scientific Director of the Nekton Oxford Deep Ocean Research Institute (‘Nekton’) and Professor of Conservation Biology at the University of Oxford led the research and believes these discoveries could challenge our assumptions of the patterns of biodiversity of life, including the number of different species, in the ocean.
“Considering the Bermudian waters have been comparatively well studied for many decades, we certainly weren’t expecting such a large number and diversity of new species”, explains Professor Rogers. “These discoveries are evidence of how little we know and how important it is to document this unknown frontier to ensure that its future is protected.
“If life in the shallower regions of the deep sea is so poorly documented it undermines confidence in our existing understanding of how the patterns of life change with depth,” says Professor Rogers.
New Ocean Zone Full of Unique Life
The Rariphotic Zone is the fourth zone confirmed in the top 3000m of the ocean, each defined by distinct biological communities living at different depths. The zones are the Altiphotic (0metres to 40metres), Mesophotic (40metres to 130metres), Rariphotic (130metres to 300metres) and Bathyal Zone (300metres to 3000metres).
In March 2018, in the scientific journal Nature Scientific Reports, Dr. Carole Baldwin from the Smithsonian Institute described the discovery of unique reef-fish communities living above the seabed between 130 and 309 meters around the Caribbean island of Curacao that are taxonomically distinct from shallower animals. Lacking an existing name for this depth zone Dr. Baldwin proposed ‘rariphotic’.
Results from Nekton Mission I – XL Catlin Deep Ocean Survey – confirms that a similar zonation of life exists in the water column, and provides additional evidence of this zonation within the biota of the seabed including corals, sponges and algae.
Major Unexpected Underwater Discoveries
During Nekton Mission I field research, the discovery of a major subsea algal forest on the summit of the previously under explored Plantagenet Seamount (locally known as Argus) provided the first indications of a potentially major scientific breakthrough.
Just 15 miles off the coast of Bermuda, the slopes of the Seamount were found to have gardens of twisted wire corals and sea fans, communities of sea urchins, green moray eels, yellow hermit crabs, fish and other mobile fauna feeding off zooplankton and algae drifting off the summit and settling on the deep seabed. There are more than 100,000 seamounts globally but less than 50 have been biologically sampled in detail.
Major Collab Reveals Mega Populations
Laboratory analysis conducted by a network of scientists from across 15 different marine research institutes has revealed the discovery of over an estimated 100 new species including very small animals such as tanaids to dozens of new algae species and larger charismatic animals such as black wire coral that stand up to two metres high.
“We believe we have discovered dozens of new species of algae including the deepest ever record to have had its DNA sequenced. Many are recognised for demonstrating a new biogeographical link between Bermuda and the Indo-Pacific”, says Professor Craig Schneider, Trinity College, USA, one of the participating scientists.
“We have discovered at least 13 new crustacean species including tanaids, gnathiid isopods and leptostracans”, explains Professor Nick Schizas, University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, who also participated in the Mission.
More About NEKTON Mission I
Nekton Mission I is a major scientific marine research expedition to investigate ocean function, health, and resilience across the Northwest Atlantic and focused on Bermuda. Launched in July 2016, the mission used two Triton submersibles (300m, depth) 1 ROV (2000m depth) and technical dive teams (100m depth). The expedition focused much of its research off Bermuda, on the Bermuda Platform that was formed from the eroded stump of a large volcano around 40 million years ago.
The expedition also studied Sargasso Sea that is at risk from the vast accumulations of litter that have built up within gyres. Scientists examined the impact on the local ecosystem and also looked to identify where these accumulations of litter end up. Unlike most other gyres where the litter remains and persists, long-term build up does not appear to occur in the Sargasso Sea.
Additional exploration occurred some 200km southeast of Nova Scotia, in the Gully Marine Protected Area. The largest submarine canyon in eastern North America, this MPA is home to a wide variety of organisms, including cold-water coral, diverse fish species and more than 14 different kinds of marine mammals, including the endangered Scotian Shelf population of Northern Bottlenose Whale.
A Mission Inspiring Others to ‘Think Different’
The Mission’s transect data from the Kelvin Seamount on habitat and species presence has already been used by North West Atlantic Fisheries Organisation to increase protection of the area.
The Mission has been credited as the spark for Sky PLC’s Ocean Rescue Campaign. Based in the UK, Sky News launched Sky Ocean Rescue in January 2017 to shine a spotlight on the issues affecting ocean health. In October 2017 at Our Oceans Conference in Malta, Sky News committed to: (1) transform their business operations by eliminating all single-use plastics from our operations, products and supply chain by 2020, (2) launch a fund of £25 million, over five years, to invest in innovative solutions to the problem of ocean plastics, and (3) use its channels and news platforms to shine a spotlight on the issues affecting ocean heath and inspire people to make a change in their everyday lives. As part of Ocean Rescue, Sky has partnered with WWF to safeguard over 400,000km2 of Marine Protected Areas across Europe’s oceans.
Nekton Mission I also saw the launch of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Culture Organisation’s (UNESCO) World Heritage in the High Seas Programme.
What’s Next for Nekton.
The first peer-reviewed scientific papers have been published from Nekton Mission I. The first scientific publication from the Mission documented the deepest recorded evidence of lionfish globally to reveal the spread of this invasive species deeper into the ocean than previously known.
The synthesis of expedition results will be published by September 2018. At least 20 scientific papers are expected to be published in total.
Nekton Mission II, will take deep dives into the least explored and most at risk of the world’s major oceans, the Indian Ocean. Mission II consists of six research cruises in six distinct bioregions of the Indian Ocean from West (Mozambique Channel and Seychelles), to Central (Mauritius and Maldives) and East (Andaman and Sumatra).
The Indian Ocean Mission is a major global scientific collaboration that aims to create a step-change in our knowledge of the Indian Ocean and catalyse its sustainable governance. The Mission will conclude with a State of the Indian Ocean Summit in November 2021.
By Laurie Wilson, Blue Ocean Network
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