A team of scientists discovered six new animal species at an hydrothermal vent in the southwest Indian Ocean during a November 2011 expedition, according to a paper published recently in the Scientific Reports journal.
Located 2,000 kilometres southeast of Madagascar, at a place called Longqi (which means “Dragon's Breath” in Chinese), the area contained more than a dozen mineral spires known as vent chimneys. Many of these spires are more than two storeys high, and are rich in copper and gold. The hot fluids gushing out of the chimneys serve to nourish the deepsea animals, which congregate at the spires.
The Longqi vents are the first known in the region and the expedition was the first to explore them using a deep-diving remotely operated vehicle (ROV).
It was here that scientists from the University of Southampton discovered the new species, which comprised a species of hairy-chested 'Hoff' crab (closely related to 'Hoff' crabs at Antarctic vents); two species of snail, a species of limpet; a species of scaleworm; and a species of deep-sea worm. Apart from one species of snail, which has been given the scientific name Gigantopelta aegis, most have not yet been formally described.
“We can be certain that the new species we've found also live elsewhere in the southwest Indian Ocean, as they will have migrated here from other sites, but at the moment no one really knows where, or how well-connected their populations are with those at Longqi,” said Dr Jonathan Copley, Associate Professor in Marine Ecology.
The team, which includes colleagues at the Natural History Museum in London and Newcastle University, carried out genetic comparisons with other species and populations elsewhere to show that several species at Longqi are not yet recorded from anywhere else in the world's oceans.
“Our results highlight the need to explore other hydrothermal vents in the southwest Indian Ocean and investigate the connectivity of their populations, before any impacts from mineral exploration activities and future deep-sea mining can be assessed." said Dr Copley. The area where the animals were found had been slated for mining in the future.
The scientists also found other species at Longqi that are found at other vents located in other oceans: Another new species of scaleworm lives at vents on the East Scotia Ridge in the Antarctic 6,000 km away, while a species of ragworm lives at vents in the eastern Pacific more than 10,000 km away.
"Finding these two species at Longqi shows that some vent animals may be more widely distributed across the oceans than we realised," added Dr Copley.