Aliens of the Deep


This sea urchin (Ctenocidaris species) belongs to a group of spiny organisms called echinoderms that includes sea cucumbers, sea stars and sand dollars. (Photo credit: Armin Rose/German Center for Marine Biodiversity)

When I was a wee lassie, we had an animal encyclopedia bursting with lavish full-color illustrations of myriad habitats, such as the rainforest, desert, or seashore. But the section that never failed to draw out my goosebumps was the one that dealt with the Deep Sea; the pages were cloaked in inky darkness, illuminated only by the most bizarre and grotesque of nature's deformed and damned offspring. I'd be merrily flipping through the book—oh look, here's that cute arctic fox; hello, toucans and parakeets; then OMIGOD IT'S THE DEEP SEA TURN THE PAGE TURN THE PAGE.

If I could travel back in time, I'd tilt my younger self's chin towards me, look her straight in the eyes, and say, "Self, you have EVERY REASON TO BE AFRAID."

Recent expeditions to Antarctica's Southern Ocean have uncovered nearly 600 never-before-described organisms inhabiting that blackened abyss, including the carnivorous moonsnail. "Astonishingly high and unexpected" is how Angelika Brandt from the Zoological Museum Hamburg in Germany, describes the vast biodiversity she and colleagues have discovered in the depths of the Southern Ocean. Not quite the words I'd use, but then again, you'd have to stop me from screaming first.The ANDEEP (Antarctic benthic deep-sea biodiversity) project sampled down to 6348 meters, discovering 585 new species of crustacean—80 percent of which were new to science. "The number of species out there are certainly unknowable, due to the fact that many are rare and that the Southern Ocean deep sea is vast," Brandt says.

The researchers also theorize that the Antarctic deep sea is potentially where all marine species originated. In fact, some of the isopods and marine worms found on the continental shelf bore signs of their freaky ancestry. "On the shelf, the animals have eyes because they can see. There's light in the water. In the deep sea you don't really need them, so many animals get rid of their eyes," said Brigitte Ebbe, a taxonomist at the German Center for Marine Biodiversity Research, in an interview with LiveScience.

That's it. I'm never going near the water again.

(More pictures below. Peruse at your own peril.)

:: LiveScience and :: The New Scientist

The Ceratoserolis, a crustacean, was one of the species brought back by the ANDEEP project (Photo credit: Wiebke Brökeland/DZMB)

The team discovered 585 new species, including the first species of Epimeriidae to be found living in the deep sea (Photo credit: British Antarctic Survey)

The carnivorous moonsnail can detect food from a great distance; the polyps that cover its shell hitch a ride to reach their food (Photo credit: British Antarctic Survey)

Despite living in the dark, deep sea, this new species of mollusc has developed eyes; its shell is protected by a cloak of tissue (Photo credit: British Antarctic Survey)

:: Top caption by LiveScience :: Below-the-fold captions by The New Scientist

Tags: Biodiversity | Oceans