The Galapagos Islands are known as the lands that inspired some of the brightest ideas from Charles Darwin when he visited the volcanic archipelago back in 1835. Around 185 years later, this small patch of planet Earth is still revealing new biological discoveries and plenty of scientific surprises.
A recent dive into the protected waters of the Galapagos Marine Reserve has managed to identify 30 new species of deep-sea invertebrate creatures, from vividly colored coral and alien-like sponges to a small handful of unusual crustaceans.
During a 10-day cruise aboard the EV Nautilus research vessel, researchers from the Charles Darwin Foundation used remotely-operated vehicles (ROV) to explore the deep-sea environment between depths of 290 and 3,373 meters (~950 to 11,066 feet) around the Galapagos Marine Reserve, a large protected area found thousands of kilometers from mainland Ecuador. The team collected 90 biological specimens that were preserved and sent to experts around the world for analysis. The results of the sampling were published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports this week.
Out of the 90 specimens recovered, they found 30 species and five genera that were undescribed and new to science. This includes four species of squat lobsters, one species of giant cup coral, 10 bamboo corals, three octocorals, 11 sponges, and one brittle starfish.
"These dives revealed some of the most unusual deep-sea octocorals we have seen. These new species will contribute to establishing the uniqueness of the deep-sea fauna in the Tropical Eastern Pacific,” Dr Les Watling, a study author from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said in a statement
“This finding confirms that Galapagos is a living laboratory with biological and ecological processes in progress and yet to be explored, which make it an exceptional site that merits all our efforts to be conserved,” Paulo Proaño, Ecuador’s Minister of Environment and Water, said in another statement.
The ROVs were focused on the seafloor’s seamounts, underwater sloped mountains formed from volcanic rock. These geological features are often home to an incredible array of biodiversity as they provide an ideal environment for life to thrive. For starters, they provide marine life with a substrate for life to latch onto and grow. They also catch the ocean’s currents, which carry with them a constant stream of nutrients and planktonic food from elsewhere in the sea, sort of like a conveyor belt sushi.
Unfortunately, these havens of deep-sea life are often under threat. Despite their importance for biodiversity, seamounts are vulnerable to trawling and other destructive human activities. Thankfully, the seamounts within the Galapagos Marine Reserve are protected against such practices, but this study further highlights the importance of preserving these invaluable environments in the eastern Pacific and beyond.
"The deep-sea remains as earth’s last frontier and this study provides a sneak-peak into the least known communities of the Galapagos Islands," explained Dr Pelayo Salinas de León, lead study author and senior marine scientist at the Charles Darwin Foundation and conservation scientist at the National Geographic Pristine Seas project.
"These pristine seamounts are within the Galapagos Marine Reserve and are protected from destructive human practices such as fishing with bottom trawls or deep-sea mining that are known to have catastrophic impacts upon fragile communities. Now it is our responsibility to make sure they remain pristine for the generations to come," he added.