Photos: Deep-sea wonders from the Atlantic

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  1. Purple and peculiar

    During a research cruise in the North Atlantic Ocean, scientists aboard the British vessel James Cook cataloged a menagerie of marine organisms, including more than 10 possible new species. This is a purple variety of the enteropneust acorn worm, which may be a transitional species between invertebrates and backboned animals. The creature feeds on seafloor sediment, leaving behind variable wavy traces. (David Shale) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Pretty weird in pink

    The Northern Pink variety of the deep-sea acorn worm leaves behind characteristic spiral traces on the seafloor of the North Atlantic. (David Shale) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Comb jelly

    This comb jelly was found close to the seafloor on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a tectonic plate boundary. (David Shale) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Star of the show

    This specialized starfish, also known as a basket star or Gorgonocephalus, captures krill in its intricate arms. (David Shale) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Ridge runner

    This sea cucumber (Peniagone porcella) feeds on the seafloor but is capable of swimming. It is found amid the hills and valleys of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. (David Shale) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Deep-sea predator

    This deep-sea jellyfish (Trachymedusa) feeds on plankton and small crustacea near the seafloor. (David Shale) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Visible cucumber

    The internal organs of this sea cucumber (Peniagone diaphana) are visible within its outer covering. The species was first described in 1882. (David Shale) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. White worm

    This enteropneust acorn worm is of the Southern White variety. "They have no eyes, no obvious sense organs or brain, but there is a head end, tail end and the primitive body plan of backboned animals is established," says Monty Priede, director of the University of Aberdeen's Oceanlab. (David Shale) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Glowworm of the deep

    The scale worm (Polynoid polychaete) is one of the many bioluminescent creatures of the deep sea. Its scales glow in the dark. (David Shale) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Kooky cucumber

    Sea cucumbers like this one (Peniagone diaphana) are thought to make up a significant proportion of the animal biomass at the seafloor in some regions of the deep ocean. How they survive is something of a mystery. Researchers had assumed that sea cucumbers were slow crawlers, but in the deep Atlantic they saw that they can be fast-moving swimmers as well. "We are interested in how these animals are feeding in areas of the deep sea where food is often scarce," says Newcastle University's Ben Wigham. (David Shale) Back to slideshow navigation
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By
OurAmazingPlanet
updated 7/7/2010 2:35:59 PM ET 2010-07-07T18:35:59

Scientists from Britain and 16 other nations have just returned from an expedition to explore a never-before-seen area of the ocean floor. Instead of the barren, sparsely inhabited environment some expected to see, scientists brought back pictures of a mysterious world that is teeming with life.

The research focused on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a massive, undersea mountain range which essentially splits the ocean in half, dividing east from west. The seascape, featuring rocky outcroppings, sheer cliffs and flat open plains, might look familiar to anyone who has spent time in the American West. The residents of this ridge, however, are decidedly exotic.

At least 10 creatures that possibly represent new species were discovered during the six-week journey aboard the James Cook, a British research vessel.

Exploring the seabed
Scientists sent a remotely operated vehicle, the Isis, on dives lasting up to 30 hours, down to depths of up to 12,000 feet (3,600 meters). Outfitted with 10 high-definition, studio-quality cameras and powerful lamps to illuminate the darkness of the sea floor, the van-sized ROV took hours of footage of myriad species, all interacting in their natural habitat.

Of particular interest are three new species of brightly colored enteropneust, a kind of deep-sea worm. The small invertebrates, about 4 inches (10 centimeters) long, had previously been found only in the Pacific Ocean.

Professor Monty Priede, director of the University of Aberdeen’s Oceanlab, said the first enteropneust spotted by the researchers was a pink variety.

“It was a very exciting moment. We said, 'Ah, we’re the first people to see this!'" Priede said. "Other samples have been fragmented and broken up — we were the first to get specimens of these animals.”

For Priede, the real eureka moment came when the team saw one of the worms actually swimming.

“It was just floating in the water, curled up and drifting along in the current,” said Priede. “But when it perceived our presence, it held its tail straight, almost like a human diver, and went shooting down to the bottom.”

Priede said that the eyeless creatures can’t actually see, but the worm must have somehow sensed the Isis lurking nearby.

An evolutionary discovery
The discovery of the new worm species was important, Priede said, because these creatures represent “the base of the chain of evolution. They’re not the missing link, but they’re very close to it.”

Daniel Jones of Britain’s National Oceanography Centre said the rocky regions of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge were the most surprising areas. “We really didn’t know what to expect,” he said.

Researchers found new varieties of cliff-dwelling, uncharacteristically active sea cucumbers; corals several meters tall that might be a thousand years old; and sea lilies, which are marine animals that look like flowers.

Priede said the Cook’s expedition, part of the international Census of Marine Life, opens a new chapter in our understanding of ocean populations.

“There’s plenty of real estate out in the middle of the ocean where these animals are living,” he said. “We’re realizing there’s much more habitat out there than we realized. So that will turn around our whole idea about how life is organized in the ocean as a whole.”

© 2012 OurAmazingPlanet. All rights reserved. More from OurAmazingPlanet.

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