Sea spiders the size of dinner plates, giant worms and jelly fish with 18 ft-long tentacles have been discovered by a scientific expedition exploring the largely unknown waters of Antarctica.
The bizarre menagerie – many of the creatures are new to science – was documented by a fleet of three Australian, French and Japanese marine research ships which docked in Hobart, Tasmania, this week.
“Gigantism is very common in Antarctic waters,” said Australian scientist Martin Riddle, voyage leader on one of the research ships, the Aurora Australis.
“Many [of the creatures] live in the dark and have pretty large eyes. They are strange looking fish.”
The expedition collected video footage of the sea bed at depths of up to 4,200ft.
“It’s amazing to be able to navigate undersea mountains and valleys and actually see what the animals look like in their undisturbed state,” Dr Riddle said.
“In some places every inch of the sea floor is covered in life. In other places we can see deep scars and gouges where icebergs scour the sea floor as they pass by.”
The collected specimens, which include sea urchins, fish and glass-like animals called tunicates or sea squirts, will be sent to universities and museums around the world for identification, tissue sampling and DNA analysis. Some of the creatures hauled up from the deep weighed up to 65 lbs.
“Not all of the creatures that we found could be identified and it’s very likely that some new species will be recorded as a result of these voyages,” said Graham Hosie, leader of the Collaborative East Antarctic Marine Census project.
The scientists are monitoring how the impact of environmental change in Antarctic waters, such as ocean acidification caused by rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, could affect marine life.
It is feared that acidification will make it harder for marine organisms to sustain their calcium carbonate skeletons.
Scientists are also concerned that another threat to Antarctica – global warming – could draw sharks to the Southern Ocean, shattering a delicate ecological balance.
Biologists who gathered in Boston last week for the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science warned that sharks would devastate soft-shelled mollusks and other invertebrates inhabiting the ocean floor.
Global warming has already pushed temperatures up by 1 – 2