KUNM

Near Icy Waters, Marine Life Gets By Swimmingly

Jan 6, 2012
Originally published on January 6, 2012 6:13 pm

Almost two miles deep into the dark water off the coast of Antarctica, researchers say they've discovered about two dozen new species of marine animals lurking on the seafloor. Geyserlike hydrothermal vents are key to these creatures' survival. The vents release scalding-hot fluids with chemicals that support them.

The Antarctic research team was able to take photos and video of the new species, including yeti crabs, starfish, barnacles, sea anemones — and potentially octopuses.

To take the pictures, researchers deployed a tethered robot from their research ship. About the size of a four-wheel-drive truck, the robot was outfitted with an array of high-definition video cameras and still cameras. The researchers would watch a bank of screens of pictures that the robot beamed up from the seabed.

"You can hear the scientists catching their breath as they think they may have seen something on the cameras — and then cheering, almost as though they were at a football match, when some of these sights reached us," University of Oxford biologist Alex Rogers, who led the expedition, tells All Things Considered host Robert Siegel. Their research is published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS Biology.

Clumps Of Extra-Hairy Crabs

Particularly striking, Rogers said, were the yeti crabs.

"The yeti crabs were literally in heaps around the hydrothermal vents — in densities in up to 600 per square meter [almost 11 square feet] — and all jostling and writhing around to get the best position in the hydrothermal fluid flow," he says. "It really was an incredible sight."

Sometimes, Rogers said, they would capture the crabs crawling up the vent chimneys and fighting with each other for a better spot. Researchers say the yeti crabs they saw are a new species. Yeti crabs currently found in the South Pacific have hairy limbs and claws, Rogers said. But the crabs his team found had hairy chests, too.

It was their appearance that led one of the Ph.D. students on the trip to nickname them "Hoff crabs" — after Baywatch star David Hasselhoff, known for baring his hairy chest.

"Scientists like a bit of lighthearted humor when they've been out at sea for two months," Rogers says.

But if it's a new species, can Hasselhoffius make it into the name?

"Well, we'll have to see," says Rogers, who says he and his colleagues are still in the process of describing this new species.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Well, diving a little deeper now for this next story. It's not every week that we have novel life forms to report in an extreme, previously unexplored environment. But this week, an Antarctic research cruise shared images taken 2 miles under the sea, near hydrothermal vents. These are basically underwater geysers, hot springs. The water - heated beneath the Earth's crust - is over 750 degrees Fahrenheit, and it's so deep, under so much pressure, the water does not boil.

In fact, it supports such creatures as the hairy-chested yeti crab, a seven-armed sea star, not to mention fields of stalked barnacles. Biologist Alex Rogers of the University of Oxford led this expedition and joins us now from Oxford. And, Professor Rogers, first, the images that you have brought back from the Scotia Ridge, deep beneath the Southern Ocean, are astonishingly vivid. How did you take them?

ALEX ROGERS: We used a tethered robot, which was deployed from the Royal Research Ship James Cook. This is a vehicle which is about the size of a four-wheel-drive truck. It has very mobile manipulators on the front and an array of high-definition video cameras and stills cameras on the front as well.

SIEGEL: Tell me your reaction when you first saw the images, which now we've all seen, of, say, the yeti crabs.

ROGERS: Well, I think people should bear in mind that we were the first humans ever to see these particular vents, and they really were an astonishing sight. The yeti crabs were literally in heaps around the hydrothermal vents, in densities of up to 600 per square meter, and all jostling and riding around to get the best position in the hydrothermal fluid flow. So it really was an incredible sight.

SIEGEL: And this particular crab is novel, is unlike crabs seen elsewhere?

ROGERS: It's a new species of yeti crab, and they're called yeti crabs because they're very hairy. The ones in the South Pacific have very hairy limbs and hairy claws. Our yeti crab has a very hairy chest.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: You said they're hairy, and the reason they're called yeti is in honor of the Abominable Snowman. That's a name for that creature, yes.

ROGERS: Yes. Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: There's also some stunning video of what looks like a white octopus.

ROGERS: That's right. We're not entirely sure what it is because we didn't manage to capture any, but we believe it's probably a Vulcanoctopus, and these are octopuses which only occur around hydrothermal vents. And we saw these animals roving around the vent fields, and we think they may have actually been preying on the yeti crabs.

SIEGEL: Well, before you go, you have to tell us about the nickname that was given to the yeti - the hairy chested yeti crabs.

ROGERS: Yes...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROGERS: ...indeed. One of my PhD students, a chap called Nicolai Roterman, first coined the phrase on the ship of the Hoff or the Hoff crab because of the very hairy chest of these particular yeti crabs.

SIEGEL: After David Hasselhoff, who was the start of "Baywatch."

ROGERS: Yes. You know, scientists like a bit of a lighthearted humor when they've been out at sea for two months and...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Well, if it's a new species, can Hasselhoffia(ph) somehow make it into the name?

ROGERS: Well, we'll have to see and the - we're in the process of describing this new species, and I'll have to talk to my colleagues about what name it eventually ends up with. But, of course, it's just one amongst probably two dozen new species of large animal which we found around these hydrothermal vents.

SIEGEL: As you were viewing these images from under the sea, was there one particular holy cow moment that was louder and more dramatic than the others, or was it just nonstop holy cow eureka?

ROGERS: Well, I must say that the cruise that I led with the remotely operated vehicle Isis was one discovery after another. And if you can imagine the scene, we're all standing in a dark control van for the remotely operated vehicle with a bank of screens in front of us beaming up pictures from the seabed, and you can hear the scientists catching their breath as they think they may have seen something on the cameras and then cheering almost as though we were at a football match when some of these sights reached us.

I mean, the - as I said, the sights of these enormous heaps of yeti crabs around the vents was particularly striking. And sometimes, we observed the yeti crabs crawling up the vent chimneys and even fighting with each other for the best position around the fluid flow, really stunning images that will remain with all of us for the rest of our lives, I guess.

SIEGEL: Well, professor Rogers, thank you - congratulations on your discoveries...

ROGERS: And thanks very much.

SIEGEL: ...and thank you very much for talking with us.

ROGERS: Yeah. Lovely to talk to you.

SIEGEL: That is biologist Alex Rogers of the University of Oxford speaking to us from Oxford. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.