About 2,000 km (1,243 miles) southeast of Madagascar lies Longqi, meaning "Dragon's Breath." The area earns its name from the hydrothermal vents it is home to, and as the fissures belch heated water into the ocean, structures called "vent chimneys" are formed. Towering up to two storys above the ocean floor, these spires offer attractive housing for local sea life, including some never seen anywhere else.
This expedition, involving scientists from the University of Southampton, Newcastle University and the London Natural History Museum, used a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) to map out an area the size of a stadium back in November 2011. In doing so, the team discovered six species, genetically distinct from any other recorded animals.
Among the discoveries are two new types of sea snail, a limpet, a scaleworm, a deep-sea worm and a second species of what's informally known as a "Hoff" crab, due to its hairy-chested resemblance to a certain Baywatch star. One of the snails has been scientifically named Gigantopelta aegis, but the others are yet to be formally described and named.
"We can be certain that the new species we've found also live elsewhere in the southwest Indian Ocean, as they will have migrated here from other sites, but at the moment no one really knows where, or how well-connected their populations are with those at Longqi," says Dr Jon Copley, who led the team.
Of course, other known species were also found to call Longqi home, including a type of scaleworm found on the East Scotia Ridge, Antarctica, and ragworms seen in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Finding these same creatures, thousands of kilometers apart, suggests that vent-dwelling animals are more widespread than scientists previously realized.
Sadly, the fascinating landscapes of Longqi may not be so pristine for long. The expedition that discovered the new creatures was part of an early operation to study the ecology of the area, "prior to possible anthropogenic disturbances." Such disturbances are likely to come in the form of deep-sea mining: the International Seabed Authority of the United Nations has already licensed the Longqi region out for eventual mining. Those vent chimneys are rich in gold and copper, after all.
The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Source: University of Southampton
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