New life discovered by robotic submersible

Sea cucumber
Sea cucumber
Image: David Shale
Source: David Shale

Media contact: Alex Dook
adook@museum.vic.gov.au

Three new species of sea cucumber have been discovered by Museum Victoria scientists almost a kilometre beneath the surface of the ocean.

The sea cucumbers were discovered on a UK-led expedition for new life on seamounts and hydrothermal vents 1500 kilometres south of Madagascar. The project involved more than 20 international marine engineers and scientists, including Museum Victoria marine biologists Mark O'Loughlin and Melanie Mackenzie.

"We were able to describe three species of sea cucumber totally new to science," O'Loughlin said. "New technology provided the very rare opportunity to publish colour photos of the new species for fellow scientists."

The identification of the sea cucumbers was made possible by the expedition's remotely operated vehicle – or ROV – a remote-controlled robot capable of traversing the ocean floor, collecting samples, and taking video and photographs. Operators back on the ship control the ROV's robotic arm, guiding it to collect specimens as they appear on a video screen. Samples are then sorted and preserved by the scientific team.

"Specimens often lose their colour during the preservation process, so by the time they're back at the lab, they look completely different," Mackenzie said. "The ROV allows us to not only access new environments and take samples, but also to take video and photographs of animals in their natural environments."

An ROV is about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and can work at depths of up to six kilometres, opening up a whole new world for scientists. But while the ROV is useful in exploring new environments, O'Loughlin insists that it is just one of many research tools available to marine scientists.

"You still need the scientific expertise to interpret what you find down there, which is what we brought to this collaboration," he said. "We're proud to belong to a global community of such esteemed institutions."

The project was led by Professor Alex Rogers of the University of Oxford, and funded through a grant from the UK-based Natural Environment Research Council. The three new sea cucumbers will be housed at the British Museum of Natural History for future research.

Australian scientists will soon have greater access to ROV technology, with the Marine National Facility's new research vessel Investigator due to be launched this year.

Museum Victoria Public Relations contact:
Alex Dook, 8341 7141 / 0478 348 880, adook@museum.vic.gov.au

For all general public enquiries, contact the museum's Discovery Centre

 

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Sea cucumber