Researchers have discovered about 5,000 entirely new species in the vast, mineral-rich part of the Pacific Ocean that companies will mine in the future.
Scientists have found 5,578 different species in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a region that stretches about 3,100 miles in the area between Hawaii and Mexico, according to a study published Thursday in the scientific journal Current Biology. About 88-92% of species have never been seen before.
The zone, which receives little sunlight and has little food availability, is also home to potato-sized polymetallic nodules, which are a potential mineral resource for copper, nickel, cobalt, iron, manganese and other rare earths.
Companies want to mine polymetallic nodules. / Credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum in London
The deep-sea mining industry is hoping to pick up this area, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Deep-sea mining in the region is regulated by the International Seabed Authority, an intergovernmental body. The ISA has awarded mining exploration contracts in the area to 16 companies. Mineral exploration in the CCZ began in the 1960s.
Environmentalists and biologists, who want to understand what might be at risk when companies start mining, have begun to investigate the CCZ, said study lead author Muriel Rabone.
“We share this planet with all this incredible biodiversity, and we have a responsibility to understand and protect it,” Rabone, who is a deep-sea ecologist at the Natural History Museum in London, said in a press release.
Explorers traveled to the Pacific Ocean on research cruises. They collected samples and reviewed more than 100,000 records of creatures found in the CCZ during their expeditions.
The most common types of animals found in the underwater region are arthropods (invertebrates with segmented joints), worms, echinoderms (spiny invertebrates such as sea urchins), and sponges, including one that is carnivorous.
Ecologist Muriel Rabone with deep sea specimens. / Credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum in London
“There are some just extraordinary species down there. Some of the sponges look like classic bath sponges and some look like vases. They’re just beautiful,” Rabone said in a press release. “One of my favorites is glass sponges. They have these little spines, and under the microscope they look like little chandeliers or little sculptures.”
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With mining operations looming, the researchers said they hope there will be more biodiversity studies in the region.
“This is particularly important given that the CCZ remains one of the few remaining areas of the global ocean with high intact wilderness,” the researchers wrote in the study. “Strange data and understanding are essential to shed light on this unique region and ensure its future protection from human impact.”
NOAA noted that deep-sea mining of polymetallic nodules in the area could be harmful.
“The mining of these nodules could lead to the destruction of life and seabed habitat in mined areas, as simulated in the eastern Pacific,” the agency wrote.
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