Scientists discover new marine life off Tasmania

A team of researchers from Australia and the United States have uncovered new marine life, including fiery red coral and purple-spotted sea anemones, in deep waters off the Australian state of Tasmania, according to findings released Sunday.

Scientists who took part in the US$2 million four-week expedition also found that most reef-forming coral deeper than 4,200 feet (1,300 meters) in the area were newly dead. Researchers will study samples of the coral to try and determine whether the creatures are dying because of ocean warming, disease, a rise in ocean acidity or some other reason.

“Mathematical models predict that we could be seeing impacts of ocean acidification in this region,” one of the expedition’s chief scientists, Ron Thresher of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, said in a statement. “If our analysis identifies this phenomenon as the cause of the reef system’s demise, then the impact we are seeing now below 1,300 meters (4,200 feet) might extend to the shallower portions of the deep reefs over the next 50 years, threatening this entire community.”

The effect of rising ocean acidity on coral is troubling, said Michael Kingsford, head of marine biology at James Cook University in Queensland state.

“Any warnings signs that deep calcium carbonate-based animals like corals are getting weaker … is, of course, of great concern, and does match with the long-term prediction that we’re heading in the wrong direction,” he said.

The team, also led by scientist Jess Adkins of the California Institute of Technology, used a remotely-operated, car-sized submarine named “Jason” to explore an area of deep water southwest of Tasmania between Dec. 16 and Saturday. The sub, which can collect samples and shoot pictures and video footage, made 14 dives lasting up to 48 hours each, reaching depths of more than 13,000 feet (4,010 meters).

Sea spiders, a carnivorous sea squirt and a sponge with a waffle-like appearance were among the treasures the scientists saw more than 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) below the surface, Thresher said. The sea squirt, which stood 1.6 feet (half a meter) tall on the ocean floor, works like a venus flytrap, using a funnel-like appendage to collapse around prey that unwittingly brush past it.

International Herald Tribune, 18 January 2009. Full article.

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