Last week, a month-long expedition to explore the deep sea off the coast of eastern Australia came to an end. According to Calla Wahlquist at The Guardian, the expedition, entitled Sampling the Abyss, racked up a final tally of finds that includes about 1,000 freaky deep sea creatures—a third of which have never been described before by science.
According to a press release, the venture was a collaboration between Museums Victoria, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) as well as other museums and agencies. For 31 days, a crew of 40 scientists aboard the research vessel Investigator looked into the “abyssal” areas from Tasmania to central Queensland—unexplored habitat 13,000 feet under the surface of the ocean.
“The abyss is the largest and deepest habitat on the planet, covering half the world’s oceans and one third of Australia’s territory, but it remains the most unexplored environment on Earth,” Tim O’Hara of Museums Victoria and the project's chief scientist says in the press release. “We know that abyssal animals have been around for at least 40 million years, but until recently only a handful of samples had been collected from Australia’s abyss.”
That makes many of the animals unique, including the “faceless fish” which made news last month when it was found in Australian waters. But as Wahlquist reports, new species are just the tip of the fishy iceberg. The team used a metal box that was dragged along the seafloor to collect the deep sea animals. They pulled up anglerfish and coffinfish, toothy dragonfish and a new species of blobfish from the crushing depths.
“The abyss is a world of jelly and fangs, with miniature monsters gliding up and down waiting for prey,” O’Hara says on the CSIRO blog. “Many animals have no eyes, or produce their own light through bioluminescence.”
Researchers tested 200 species in the lab, finding that at least half of them showed some sort of bioluminescence, Wahlquist reports. One of the light-emitting creatures is the cookie cutter shark, which can live 0.6 miles below the surface, an area known as the twilight zone, where the last rays of sunlight penetrate. “If you are in the twilight zone, you are able to be seen from below as a shadow,” bioluminescence researcher Jérôme Mallefet tells Wahlquist. “But if you emit light from your belly at the same color as the light above you, you become invisible.”
According to Lulu Morris at National Geographic Australia, some of the creatures collected will be on display at Museums Victoria over the next few months, but most will become part of the Museum’s natural history collection.
Sonar scans completed during the mission also suggest that the deep ocean is much more rugged than researchers expected. But they were also disturbed by all the trash they discovered, pulling up debris along with every sample. “We have found highly concerning levels of rubbish on the seafloor. We’re 100 kilometres off Australia’s coast and have found PVC pipes, cans of paints, bottles, beer cans, woodchips, and other debris from the days when steamships plied our waters,” O’Hara tells Morris. “The seafloor has 200 years of rubbish on it. Hopefully, information such as this is the first step in influencing social attitudes towards rubbish disposal.”