To celebrate #WorldOceansDay we hear from Dr Alan Jamieson and Dr Thom Linley about their most recent exciting discoveries in the deepest parts of the Pacific.
We live in a time where the marine environment is rarely reported in the media without mention of the negative impacts of human activity. As important as this awareness is, we must be conscience that it does not overshadow the beauty and splendour of the oceans and the fascinating research being done in science and exploration.
One of the last great frontiers in marine science are the deepest places on Earth, the Hadal Trenches, mostly located around the Pacific rim in areas where tectonic plates collide and plunge the seafloor to depths close to 11,000 metres (~7 miles).
At Newcastle University, we have been pioneering technology for the exploration of these ultra-deep environments and have to date completed nearly 250 deployments of their ‘lander’ systems. Recently we embarked on an expedition on board the German Research vessel Sonne to the Atacama Trench in the SE Pacific off the coast of Peru and Chile where we deployed our baited camera system 27 times across the depths of the trench including the deepest point, Richards Deep, at just over 8000 metres.
On our previous missions the group have amassed multiple successes such as obtaining the first ever video footage of fish in the hadal zone (greater than 6000m deep), and video the deepest living fishes in many Pacific trenches and more recently, described the deepest fish in the world.
Life in the deep
These record breaking fishes are of the Liparidae family, commonly known as snailfishes. They are small, semi-transparent, pink in colour with small black eyes and do not conform to the preconceived stereotypical image of what a deep-sea fish should look like. In fact they look and behave a lot like their shallow water counterparts, some of which can be found in estuarine systems, even the River Tyne.
The Atacama Trench expedition produced a wealth of new information about the species inhabiting these extreme depths which is also interesting in that the trench is very isolated from the other Pacific deeps, by ~12,000 kilometres of deep sea floor.
Discovery of new species
Perhaps the most fascinating result of the latest expedition was the discovery of three new species of snailfish living between 6500 and 7500 metres. These species are so new they haven’t been officially classified yet and are currently affectionately known as the pink, blue and purple Atacama snailfishes. We obtained hours of footage of these new snailfish swimming, foraging, preying upon small crustaceans, and on one dive filmed all three in a single video.
We also filmed some astonishingly rare footage of long-legged isopods, known as Munnopsids, which are about the size of a hand. These crustaceans have small bodies, extraordinary long legs and swim backwards and upsides down, propelling themselves with paddles on their ventral sides before righting themselves on the seafloor and spreading their long walking legs out like a spider. What species these are is unknown.
The discovery of so many new species of fish and these large isopods, and capturing it all on high definition video from one expedition, is testament to the progress that is being made at the extreme marine frontiers. Discoveries like these are a reminder that the ocean is a big place and there is still a lot to learn, to find and to celebrate.
Links for more information
For more information about the marine research that we carry out at Newcastle University, visit our webpages.
Programmes like Blue Planet 2 have been fantastic for igniting our curiosity in marine life and broadening our knowledge of the oceans.If inspired, we can venture out from our living rooms and onto our beaches and truly get involved in the conservation of Britain’s rich marine diversity.
Capturing Our Coast
Newcastle University is the lead partner in Capturing Our Coast, a marine citizen science project which works with members of the public to contribute to the greater understanding of our UK seas and the rich diversity that they host.
Capturing Our Coast is the largest marine citizen science project of its kind, facilitating as it does, members of the public to contribute, not only to collecting information on where marine species occur, but also to addressing scientific questions through experimental approaches on our shores.
A national network of marine research labs, NGOs and research institutions, provide training and support which allows thousands of volunteers to map abundances of a number of key species around our coasts. This will provide a database against which changes in the future can be measured, allowing conclusions to be drawn on the effects of human activities on biodiversity.
Dr Jane Delany, Project Lead said: “Huge value is derived from having lots of people out and about, collecting more results than scientists working alone could ever hope to gather. We need these large scale data sets collected over wide geographic areas, to pick up patterns and trends that have a lot of natural ecological ‘noise’ or variation; the findings will be particularly useful as the effects of climate change alter the way in which our coastal habitats and species communities are structured.”
The project aims to address a variety of questions surrounding the species who make their homes on our coasts. The future of some animals and habitats is uncertain as sea temperatures change and coastal storms increase in frequency as a result of climate change.
The range of issues that the Capturing Our Coast volunteers and scientists investigate vary from things such as where marine non-native, “invasive”, species have established on our coasts to how kelp, which provides a fantastic habitat for a whole range of tiny animals, varies around UK shores and the reasons for these variations.
Over 4000 citizens have registered their interest in this 3 year Heritage Lottery Funded project so far and as it enters it’s final year Capturing Our Coast are after more volunteers who want to make a difference.
Dr Jane Delany says that the Capturing Our Coast team have been “overwhelmed by the dedication and enthusiasm of our volunteers”, going on to explain that “conservation of our rich marine diversity is the responsibility of us all, not just the policy makers and scientists. We can all contribute to understanding what is happening, and how we can each make a difference.”
To get involved, enrol via the website. There is no charge for any training or support provided to enable you to become a ‘CoCoast’ volunteer.
In this blog post, Dr Will Reid shares his story of how he became a marine biologist and the inspiration that led him to his exciting career choice
Blue Planet II is well underway now and for many a marine biologist, like myself, it is an opportunity to say, “I work on those” and get a bit giddy with excitement. We have seen some wonderful footage of walruses, the graceful Ethereal snailfish and colourful coral polyps. The bobbit worm seemed to get the hospital that my partner works at very excited and I’m sure last week’s episode about plastic pollution will get many people thinking about the impact our daily lives have on the ocean.
For me personally, sitting watching the second episode of Blue Planet II and seeing those hydrothermal vents was a personal highlight. It will also go down as a big landmark in my research career. I spent about four months at sea in the Antarctic across three research expeditions, during my PhD at Newcastle University. I was part of team working on the hydrothermal vents where those crabs covered in bacteria live. The inspiration that lead me to sitting on a ship, watching a video feed from a remotely operated vehicle over two kilometers below, began with another David Attenborough documentary. This was not Blue Planet I but an even earlier BBC documentary series called Life in the Freezer, which planted the seed in my mind about becoming a marine biologist.
Becoming a Marine Biologist
Life in the Freezer aired in 1993. I was thirteen at the time. The opening scene where David Attenborough was standing in a vast snow and ice landscape was mesmerising. The series covered the ebb and flow of the ice around Antarctica and the animals that depend on the productive waters of the Southern Ocean. The part that really caught me was all the amazing life on the island of South Georgia. The coastal areas were packed full of elephant seals, fur seals, penguins, petrels and albatross. Little did I know that in just over ten years I would be living and working on the island.
I realised during that series that I wanted to be a scientist but not just any scientist, one that went to the Antarctic. I took Maths, English, History, Biology and Chemistry Highers and got onto a marine biology degree course. In my final year, I got my first opportunity to do some work related to South Georgia. I spent hours watching video footage of the deep-sea Patagonian toothfish and crabs attracted to baited deep-sea landers as part of my final year project. This was very fortunate because just as I was about to graduate a job working for British Antarctic Survey was advertised for a two-year fisheries scientist working on South Georgia on these animals. I applied. I got an interview. I didn’t get the job.
First disappointment, then an opportunity
The great thing about getting an interview is that you can often ask for feedback. So, I just asked the question “What skills and experience do I need to get the job?”. The answer sent me on a two-year mission in order to get what I needed second time round. This included: going back to university and doing a masters in Oceanography; learning to drive boats; sea survival training; and going to sea as a fisheries observer on a Portuguese deep-water trawler off Canada. My decision paid off because the job was advertised again. Once more I applied. Once more I got an interview.
Second time lucky
I got the job at British Antarctic Survey second time round. I was finally going to South Georgia! The next few weeks were a whirlwind of activity: medicals; advanced boat driving training; first aid courses; and learning to drive a JCB. Then I was finally deployed. I flew to down through South America to the Falkland Islands with part of the team that I would living and working with for the next two years. We sailed from the Falklands on the UK research vessel, the James Clark Ross, to South Georgia. I arrived in South Georgia on the 22nd November 2004.
The island of South Georgia was truly stunning. I spent two years on the island doing science that helped manage the commercial fisheries around the island. The research was varied. I worked on fish larvae, managed an aquarium which housed crabs, aged Patagonian toothfish using their ear bones called otoliths, undertook diet studies on icefish and went on fish stock assessments around the island.
The scenery and animal life were also truly amazing. I would go camping and hiking in order to visit Gentoo, king and rock hopper penguin colonies; climb snow-capped mountains; walk where explorers like Shackleton had been; and visit old abandoned whaling stations. The research base where I stayed was also in front of an elephant seal breeding beach for a couple of months of the year. I even met my current partner on the island. She was the doctor in my second year. But life on South Georgia had to come to an end.
Getting into hot water in Antarctica
Once I left South Georgia, I had a couple more months working for British Antarctic Survey back in Cambridge. I was wondering how on earth I would ever get back to the Antarctic. I stumbled across my next opportunity in the photocopy room. On the wall was an advert for a PhD at Newcastle University working on Antarctic hydrothermal vents. I applied. I got the PhD position. I moved to Newcastle.
The PhD was part of 5 year NERC programme trying to find and understand hydrothermal vents in the Antarctic. Hydrothermal vents are sites on the seafloor that release very hot fluids, rich in minerals into the water at the bottom of the ocean and are surrounded by high densities of life.
In 2010, I went back to the Antarctic as part of the first scientific expedition to sample these truly amazing habitats. We sailed on the UK science vessel, the James Cook with scientists from different universities around the UK. When we arrived at our first location, we used a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to dive down over 2 kms to hunt for the vents. After a number of hours searching the seafloor we eventually found our first hydrothermal vent field. There was a huge amount of relief on the boat as the scientists got to work.
We visited a series of sites over the next 6 weeks along the East Scotia Ridge. We discovered whole new communities and species and mapped where the different animals lived around the vents. My work focused on what the animals were eating and constructing food webs at each of the sites we visited.
This brings me back to those hydrothermal vent crabs in The Deep episode of Blue Plant II. The crabs live in areas where hot water pores over them which provides the conditions for the bacteria to grow. We collected the samples from the vents using a suction sampler on the ROV Isis. I then looked at the biochemical composition of the crabs and the bacteria. They were very similar. This indicated that the bacteria living on those crabs were its food source.
These large-scale scientific expeditions are collaborative efforts. Scientist never undertake their work in isolation on these types of projects. They are a team effort, bringing together scientific disciplines. I worked with scientists that had backgrounds in chemistry, geology, microbiology, biology, computer science and supported by mechanical and electrical engineers, technicians and a large ships crew. There is no way I could have undertaken this work without the support of so many scientific and technical disciplines. They helped me add meaning to my work and place the results in the context of the system.
Will there be another Antarctic adventure?
Watching Blue Planet II the other weekend gave me a huge amount of personal pride. To sit there with my kids and my partner and show them on TV the Antarctic crab that I helped discover felt like a massive landmark in my scientific career. I was even there at the moment when the crab stuck its claw into the hot water. Life in the Freezer was the series that inspired me to work in the Antarctic, which set me on the road (or boat) to South Georgia for 2 years and then to studying for my PhD at Newcastle University.
For many people, Blue Planet II will inspire them too, some of whom will go into marine science as well. Whether you are into maths, biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, geology or microbiology, there is a career for you that involves our Blue Planet.
For me, I am about to start another Antarctic adventure. Next year, I am going to explore the seabed that has not been exposed to open waters for approximately 120,000 years. I’ll be spending about 3 weeks working in the area where a large chunk of the Larsen C ice-shelf broke off. The research team has been assembled from a number of different universities and institutions and will once more be a collaborative effort. It just goes to show that sometime adventures never truly end.
Coral reefs are among the most bio-diverse eco-systems on the planet, but climate change and human interference threaten to destroy these essential marine environments. Research led by Newcastle University focuses on adapting and restoring coral in order to protect reefs.
What is coral and why is it important?
Corals are what are known as “sessile” animals, this means that they permanently take root to the ocean floor, much like a plant, however, corals are not plants as they do not produce their own food. Each coral is made up of thousands of tiny coral creatures known as polyps. Corals have a symbiotic relationship with a form of algae known as “zooxanthellae” that lives inside the corals’ tissues – the algae are what give coral its bright colours.
Coral reefs provide a habitat for around 25% of all marine life, with estimates suggesting reefs support the livelihood of around 2 million different species. In addition to the essential role they play in sustaining ocean health, coral reefs also contribute to the prevention of coastal erosion as well as helping to provide food security and income for millions of people in coastal communities.
Beautiful, bright coral reefs provide homes for an array of creatures such as this crinoid. Photos by Tim Dixon.
What threatens the survival of coral reefs?
Human interference with marine life, through practices such as fishing, tourism and pollution have a negative effect on the health of coral reefs. One of the biggest threats which is likely to cause coral reefs to bleach, and eventually die, is climate change. Corals are sensitive to changes in water temperature and cannot survive if the temperature rises too much. Climate change has already had an effect on water temperatures in certain areas of the world, and this is predicted to get worse over the coming decades.
A clown fish peeks out from a sea anemone attached to a coral reef. Photo by Tim Dixon.
What is being done to protect coral reefs?
Whilst existing conservation measures such as Marine Protected Areas are vital when it comes to protecting reefs from the damages of human impact, other solutions are required to help coral species adapt to changes in environmental conditions such as increasing sea temperatures.
With the continued threat of climate change and how it might affect corals hanging over their heads, scientists at Newcastle University are conducting a pioneering study into the “feasibility of using selective breeding and an innovative mass re-population method to help corals affected by bleaching.”
Professor of Coral Reef Biology, John Bythell, explains: “During coral bleaching events, it is possible to observe healthy colonies next to bleached colonies, suggesting that some corals are better adapted to higher temperatures. This means that one possible solution could be to selectively breed corals that can withstand higher than normal temperatures and successfully pass this onto offspring.”
The ground-breaking five-year “Assisting Coral Reef Survival in the Face of Climate Change” project will face many challenges; Dr Guest explains that the assisted evolution approach will “involve certain risks for recipient populations such as resource trade-offs between heat tolerance, growth and reproduction.”
If the team are successful in passing on the desirable traits to coral offspring they will then transplant the coral onto damaged reefs using a technique already developed by Newcastle University.
Coral reefs support the livelihood of a huge array of creatures. Photos by Tim Dixon.
After challenging expensive and often ineffective existing coral transplantation strategies which focus on “attaching fast-growing coral species onto damaged reefs to speed their recovery”, a team of scientists at Newcastle University developed a more cost-effective solution centered around the use of more robust, slow-growing coral species.
Using plastic wall plugs, an object more commonly used to fit screws into brickwork, Newcastle University’s team created coral “plug-ins”, where they grow healthy corals on cement cylinders which have been embedded with the plastic wall plugs. These coral “plug-ins” can then be slotted into pre-drilled holes in damaged reefs.
The hope is that through the use of the innovative techniques developed by Newcastle University led research, coral reefs will be given the ability to thrive and continue to provide a habitat for millions of marine species for generations to come.
A pygmy seahorse camouflaged among the coral. Photo by Tim Dixon.
If this post has sparked your interest and you want to find out more about Newcastle University’s research then head over to ncl.ac.uk/nes/research/marine.