Over 5,000 New Deep-Sea Species Found in Future Mining Hotspot
The most pristine wilderness region in the global ocean has been assigned to 17 companies for deep-sea mining.
In our ever-voracious hunger for natural resources, no location seems too remote or precious for extraction. With an escalation in demand for metals like cobalt and nickel, mineral-rich deep-sea habitats are the new gold-rush hills of California. One might think and hope that seabed ecosystems 4,000 to 6,000 meters deep, in the middle of nowhere, would be safe from the prying industry of mining interests, but alas, no.
In the central and eastern Pacific Ocean, there is a massive, mineral-rich region covering some 2.3 million square miles—about twice the size of India—called the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ).
Spanning from Hawaii to Mexico, the CCZ is one of the most pristine wilderness regions in the global ocean. And it has already been divided up for future deep-sea mining. Currently, there are 17 contracts for mineral exploration in the area.
Until now, there hasn't been a comprehensive listing of the breadth of organisms that call this future mining hotspot home. But with the publication of a new study outlining the 5,578 different species found in the region, we now have a basic understanding of the biodiversity of the region. An estimated 88% to 92% of those species are entirely new to science.
"Baseline biodiversity knowledge of the region is crucial to effective management of environmental impact from potential deep-sea mining activities, but until recently this has been almost completely lacking," explains the study, which was published in the journal Current Biology.
“We share this planet with all this amazing biodiversity, and we have a responsibility to understand it and protect it,” says Muriel Rabone, a deep-sea ecologist at the Natural History Museum London, UK, and lead author of the study.
The researchers combed over 100,000 records of organisms found in the CCZ taken during deep-sea expeditions. Of the more than 5,000 species they listed, only six of the new species found in the CCZ have been seen in other regions. The most common types of creatures in the CCZ are arthropods, worms, echinoderms (spiny invertebrates like sea urchins), and sponges.
And as the authors note, these estimates are nowhere complete; "some regions and habitats of the CCZ have barely been sampled at all."
It's a whole magical, mysterious world down there, untouched by industries with little regard for nature.
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“There's some just remarkable species down there. Some of the sponges look like classic bath sponges, and some look like vases. They’re just beautiful,” said Rabone of the CCZ samples. “One of my favorites is the glass sponges. They have these little spines, and under the microscope, they look like tiny chandeliers or little sculptures.”
The researchers stress the importance of more cohesive, collaborative, and multidisciplinary research efforts in the CCZ to obtain a deeper understanding of the region’s biodiversity, noting the importance of the "novelty of the region at deep taxonomic levels."
"This is particularly important given that the CCZ remains one of the few remaining areas of the global ocean with high intactness of wilderness," write the authors in the study's conclusion. "Sound data and understanding are essential to shed light on this unique region and secure its future protection from human impacts."
“There are so many wonderful species in the CCZ," says Rabone, "and with the possibility of mining looming, it’s doubly important that we know more about these really understudied habitats."
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Species Shown in Top Illustration
Row 1: (A) sea cucumber, Psychropotes dyscrita commonly known as the “gummy squirrel”; (B) the primnoid coral Abyssoprimnoa gemina; (C) antipatharian coral, Abyssopathes anomala; (D) hexactinellid sponge, Sympagella clippertonae. Row 2: (E) cyclostomatid bryozoan, Pandanipora helix; (F) isopod, Macrostylis metallicola; (G) polychaete, Neanthes goodayi; (H) mollusc, Ledella knudseni. Row 3: (I) nematode, Odetenema gesarae; (J) kinorhynch, Meristoderes taro; (K) loriciferan, Fafnirloricus polymetallicus; (L) the copepod, Siphonis aurreus.