The first species at risk of extinction due to deep-sea mining has now been added to the IUCN Red List of Threatened and Endangered Species. The scaly-foot snail – dubbed the “sea pangolin” for its endangered status and scaled appearance – is more incredible than its common name suggests.
The creature hosts a shell made of iron and lives around hydrothermal vents in the dark depths of the Indian Ocean, where searing hot water escapes from the sea floor. Its iron tags are layered like plated armor, possibly protecting it from the harpoon-like teeth and puncture-sharp claws of predators, according to the National Science Foundation. Beneath all the armor, it has a large heart, in part to keep the symbiotic bacteria within its body alive that in turn feeds its body (yes, we know, this sounds like a snail version of Game of Thrones).
The IUCN listed it as endangered on July 18, calling it a "notable introduction" that’s "from three locations restricted to hydrothermal vents on deep-ocean ridges in the Indian Ocean, at depths of up to 2,900 metres."
Two of those three vents have active mining exploration licenses, the aim of which is to scour the deep sea for copper, cobalt, and rare earth metals. Mining corporations argue that the cause is necessary, with demand for copper, aluminum, and other such metals skyrocketing due to our increasingly connected, technological lives and smartphone use.
However, this may also be at the cost of some of the rarest and most peculiar deep-sea creatures on Earth. Exploratory mining can damage vents and create sediment clouds that smother the creatures, said Chong Chen, a deep-sea biologist to Nature in a commentary.
"It is crucial we are aware of the immediacy and potential impacts of deep-sea mining," said Dr Julia Sigwart of Queen’s University Belfast and study author of the paper published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
"This Red List designation for these species will enable appropriate international protection for the most vulnerable of creatures."
Full-scale mining won’t begin until 2020 at the earliest, when the International Seabed Authority finalizes regulations on mining. The team note that they can’t replicate deep-sea hydrothermal vent conditions for deep-sea creatures; if we don’t want sea pangolins to go extinct, we’ll need to protect their natural habitats.
Researchers have been keen to study the creatures, including scientists at MIT looking into its shell structure for inspiration into first-responder armor. "The deep sea is home to thousands of species and new species are being discovered all the time," added Sigwart.
"These deep-sea marine animals like the scaly-foot snail are out of sight, out of mind, but they are still threatened by human activities."