Researchers exploring the sea floor in Antarctica have discovered a thriving and unprecedented colony of ice fish “about a third the size of London”.
A team of biologists have made the surprising discovery of about 60 million active nests while collecting routine data 1.5-2.5 meters above the sea floor in the southern Weddell Sea in Antarctica. Prior to this discovery, the largest colony found contained only 60 nests.
“We expected to see a natural sea floor in Antarctica… [but] Otton Purser, of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany, and lead author of the study published in Current Biology said:
The ecosystem was found by chance using the Ocean Floor Monitoring and Bathymetry System, a large, towed camera device that records photos and videos and takes measurements of deep-sea habitats.
The researchers were initially interested in the area due to a process called upstream, in which winds and currents bring cold water to the surface, causing the water to warm by two degrees Celsius than the surrounding area.
Purser suggested that the fish might use this warmer water as a navigational tool to help track the colony. “When they feel like breeding, they look for that warm water and breed there,” he said.
This colony of ice fish is the largest found to date, extending across more than 150 miles (240 kilometers) of the sea floor. The sheer size of the colony indicates that the Weddell Sea ecosystem is affected by these nests.
“It’s very likely that seals are eating these fish nests,” Purser said. “If you lose fish nests, you might lose seals. It’s a massive amount of food…it should have an indirect impact on the ecosystem of at least the Weddell Sea, and possibly elsewhere in Antarctic waters.”
The discovery showed that there are still large gaps in the full understanding of how deep-sea ecosystems function, Purser said. He said, “The deep sea is not a barren desert, it is abundant in life.” “The fact that there are such large ecosystems that we didn’t know about shows how likely it is to discover it until now.”
The cameras will monitor the ecosystem for the next two years to try to determine how it functions and how it interacts with other ecosystems. The researchers plan to return to the area in April 2022 to survey the surrounding waters and see if the fish are breeding again in the same nests.
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