A team of international scientists recently explored the Salas y Gómez Ridge, a remote area in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Chile. During their expedition, they discovered an amazing variety of marine life, including over 160 species that were previously unknown to science. At least 50 of these are completely new species that had never been identified before.

The species they found include squids, fish, corals, mollusks, starfish, glass sponges, sea urchins, crabs, and shrimp, among others. One of the most remarkable discoveries was the deepest known photosynthetic animal in the world – a type of coral called Leptoseris, or “wrinkled coral”, found living at record depths.

This expedition follows another recent research cruise that explored the seamounts (underwater mountains) of the Nazca and Juan Fernández Ridges and discovered 100 more unknown species.

A galactic siphonophore sighted off the coast of Chile
A galactic siphonophore sighted off the coast of Chile. Credit: ROV SuBastian / Schmidt Ocean Institute

The new findings come from a 40-day research expedition along the Salas y Gómez Ridge all the way to Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui.

The Salas y Gómez Ridge is a biologically rich region that is being considered for designation as a high seas marine protected area. The research team, led by scientists from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and the Catholic University of the North in Chile, closely examined 10 seamounts and two islands along the 1,800-mile-long underwater mountain range.

They found that each individual seamount supports distinct ecosystems, like gardens of glass sponges and deep coral reefs.

Octopus moving along a seamount off the coast of Chile
Octopus moving along a seamount off the coast of Chile. Credit: ROV SuBastian / Schmidt Ocean Institute

The information collected during this expedition will provide the scientific basis to inform management of existing and potentially expanded marine protected areas, especially around Rapa Nui. The Koro Nui o te Vaikava, the Rapa Nui Sea Council, collaborated with the scientific team on the expedition.

This council co-manages Chile’s most remote territorial seas and the Rapa Nui Marine Protected Area, and can help with managing a potential high seas protected area at Salas y Gómez.

The discovery of distinct ecosystems on individual seamounts highlights the importance of protecting the entire ridge, not just a few seamounts, said the lead scientist. The data from this expedition will help establish new marine protected areas, including in the high seas of the Salas y Gómez Ridge.

A hydroid documented on the northern flank of Rapa Nui
A hydroid documented on the northern flank of Rapa Nui. Credit: ROV SuBastian / Schmidt Ocean Institute

The Salas y Gómez Ridge is one of several global locations being considered for high seas marine protected area designation, following the recent UN High Seas Treaty. While parts of the ridge within Chile’s national jurisdiction are protected, much of it lies in international waters. Only Chile and Palau have ratified the treaty so far, but once 60 nations do, countries can establish high seas protected areas with sufficient scientific data.

The expedition mapped 30,000 square miles of the ridge, including 6 previously undocumented seamounts. The amazing habitats and animal communities they discovered show how little is still known about this remote area, the scientists said.

This research will help alert decision-makers to the ecological importance of the region and contribute to strengthening protection strategies both within and beyond national waters.


Sources

Schmidt Ocean Institute


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