February 19, 2008

Scientists Find Giant Antarctic Sea Creatures

Scientists have discovered giant sea creatures in Antarctic waters while conducting a census of sea life to determine the impact of environmental change.

The census, known as the Collaborative East Antarctic Marine Census (CEAMARC), consists of three ships: the Aurora Australis, France's L'Astrolabe and Japan's Umitaka Maru.

The expedition to the Southern Ocean took them more than 1,000 meters below the surface to the ocean floor.

"Gigantism is very common in Antarctic waters -- we have collected huge worms, giant crustaceans and sea spiders the size of dinner plates," Australian scientist Martin Riddle, voyage leader on the research ship Aurora Australis, said on Tuesday. "Many live in the dark and have pretty large eyes. They are strange looking fish."

"Some of the video footage we have collected is really stunning -- it's amazing to be able to navigate undersea mountains and valleys and actually see what the animals look like in their undisturbed state. In some places every inch of the sea floor is covered in life. In other places we can see deep scars and gouges where icebergs scour the sea floor as they pass by," he said.

The purpose of the census is to help scientists shed light on environmental factors such as ocean acidification caused by rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Riddle said that it is predicted that these environmental effects will first be seen in the cold Antarctic waters.

"What we saw down there were vast coraline gardens based on calcareous organisms and these are the ones that could really be lost in an increasing acidic ocean," he said.

As they ended their summer expedition, ships docked in Hoabrt on Australia's southern island state of Tasmania full of various forms of sealife "“ some known, others unknown. About 25 percent of those documented were unknown.

Graham Hosie, leader of the census project on Japanese ship Umitaka Maru, said the research "will help scientists understand how communities have adapted to the unique Antarctic environment."

"Specimens collected will be sent to universities and museums around the world for identification, tissue sampling and bar-coding of their DNA. Not all of the creatures that we found could be identified and it is very likely that some new species will be recorded as a result of these voyages."

CEAMARC is part of the international Census of Antarctic Marine Life, coordinated by the Australian Antarctic Division. During the International Polar Year, which spans from 2007 to 2009, the Australian Antarctic Division will see some 16 voyages to Antarctic waters.

Photo Caption: Glass-like animals known as tunicates are early colonisers of the sea floor.


On the Net:

Census of Antarctic Marine Life

Australian Antarctic Division