Life in the deep freeze

The oceans make up two thirds of the surface of planet Earth; maybe we should change its name to planet Water? With 95% of the ocean unmapped, more is known about the surface of the moon than the depths of the ocean. These vast oceans are home to over a quarter of a million known species of animals but something that interests the deep sea biologists at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) are the countless number of species still waiting to be found living in the depths.

When you are asked to think about Antarctic animals, penguins and seals are probably the first things to spring to mind and you would be forgiven for thinking that Antarctica was a vast, frozen desert. However, on the sea floor, far beneath the floating sea-ice, lives a hidden world dominated by thousands of species of invertebrates (animals with no backbone) including giant sea spiders, starfish, corals and 2 meter long worms.

Over 90% of the Ocean around Antarctica is more than 1 km deep but only a handful of the samples ever collected come from these depths so the potential for new species discoveries is enormous. Three previous deep water expeditions in the region discovered over 500 species of isopods (marine woodlice) never seen by scientists before, more than doubling the total number recorded from the whole of the Southern Ocean.

Scientists face a series of tough challenges when investigating this marine life including icebergs, the extreme cold and some of the roughest seas in the world. Using ice-strengthened ships, remotely operated underwater vehicles, video cameras and specially designed fishing nets these scientists collect and identify animals from down to 5 km deep.

To see the blog from a recent BAS expedition to the Antarctic please click here.The real work for the scientists starts once they have the samples back in the lab, where the long detailed task of counting the legs, measuring the body parts and spotting those tiny characteristics that separate one species from another takes place. Thankfully, these days, scientists also have DNA tests that they can use to speed up this process. Then comes the honour of thinking of a name for your newly described species!

Exploring the deep sea and its marine life, you could be involved as:

  • A marine biologist – sampling extreme environments for previously undescribed species of animals
  • An oceanographer – helping to understand the physical environment that the animals come from
  • An ecologist – using your knowledge of taxonomy to describe and name new species
  • A geneticist – helping to identify new species and their closest relatives
  • A marine scientist – mapping the seafloor using sonar technology
  • A research scientist – studying the ways in which animals survive in extreme environments
  • An materials engineer – designing and operating sampling gear and underwater vehicles

You will probably have studied science and maths at school to A level then gone on to a bachelors degree and probably a masters and/or PhD in a related subject.

To find out more about the British Antarctic Survey and the research that they carry out, click here.


All images supplied courtesy of British Antarctic Survey and Melanie Mackenzie of Museum Victoria.