A study has identified more than 5,000 new species living in a deep-sea habitat in the Pacific Ocean known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a seabed that is a target for mining in the coming years.
The area extends approximately 6 million square kilometers (2.3 million square miles) between Hawaii and Mexico.
Researchers said Thursday that they have identified 5,578 species in the region, 92 percent of which are new to science.
“There are 438 named and known species in the CCZ,” said lead author Muriel Rabone, a deep-sea ecologist at the Natural History Museum in London. “But there are also 5,142 unnamed species with informal names.”
“These are species that haven’t been described, which means we might know the genus, but not the species. There’s actually a lot more than I thought.”
Most of the recorded species are arthropods, invertebrates whose exoskeletons are made of chitin, such as shrimp, crabs and horseshoe crabs. Others are worms in the class Annelids and Nematodes.
The scientists used taxonomic surveys of the area that began decades ago, as well as data provided by the International Seabed Authority, which requires companies interested in mining to collect and share environmental information.
“The CCZ represents significant undescribed biodiversity” and “the novelty of the region at a deep taxonomic level,” the findings show, published in the journal Current Biology.
The zone, which receives little sunlight, has become the world’s largest mineral prospecting area. According to studies, its seafloor contains deposits of nickel, manganese, copper, zinc and cobalt.
In July, the International Seabed Authority, the intergovernmental body that oversees “activity related to mineral resources,” will begin accepting applications from companies looking to mine the seabed.
In September, a mining executive told ABC News his company could extract minerals without damaging the seabed.
“I mean, why shouldn’t we explore new territory? We need to mix it up,” Gerard Barron, chief executive of The Metals Company, a Canadian firm, told ABC News. Methods of mining the CCZ are being explored.
“The question is, what are the impacts? How do we mitigate them? How does that compare to the known impacts of onshore activities? I think that’s a decision that society will have to face,” he said.
But the researchers say more investigation is needed to assess how to protect these ecosystems.
“When studying these unique habitats, taxonomy is the most important knowledge gap we have. Before we can begin to understand how to protect these ecosystems, we must know what lives in these areas,” said study co-author Dr. said Adrian Glover, a distinguished fellow at the History Museum.
“We are on the eve of some of the largest deep sea mining operations that could be approved,” he said. “We must work with companies wishing to extract these resources to ensure any such activity is done in a way that limits its impact on the natural world.”
How many species are found in the Pacific Ocean abyss? Our new paper says >6000 and less than 500 have names. There’s a lot of taxonomy to do!and @MurielRabone @adrg1 @helena_wiklund @LupitaBribiesc1 @bokamero @DanielOBJones @mucofloris @NOC News @NHM_Sciencehttps://t.co/WgmK5nieit
— DiscoveryCollections (@tammy_horton) May 25, 2023
According to the study, mineral exploration began in the 1960s, with 17 mineral exploration contracts covering an area of 1.2 million square kilometers (463,000 square miles) with companies in various countries, including Canada, China, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
“If there’s a mining operation and we don’t know what species are there, that’s a big risk,” Rabone told the outlet.
“It’s really important to do a baseline taxonomy, find out what species are there, and that creates the building blocks for the next phase, and then ecology — what is [species’] Functional traits? Is there a role in the ecosystem that, if they are mined, there is some weird cascading effect? ” she says.
At a glance, the abyss #Pacific Ocean Oceans can appear inhospitable.
But it’s full of life. All sorts of creatures make their home in these muddy depths, including this charming purple sea cucumber.
New research begins to reveal this #deep sea Diversity 🧵1/8 pic.twitter.com/BZXBk1PGiL
— Natural History Museum (@NHM_London) May 25, 2023