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This odd-looking sea toad may look like crochet. But it’s one of a hundred species possibly new to science that have been found in underwater mountains off Chile.

Sci-fi shows are full of alien encounters, but few of the imagined creatures are as bizarre as the ones in our own deep sea. A team exploring the ocean off Chile recently discovered more than a hundred strange-looking species that are likely new to science.

“Although finding new species in these areas, among the most remote and poorly explored in the world’s oceans, is not unexpected, finding dozens of them is thrilling and inspiring,” chief scientist Javier Sellanes, a marine biologist at the Catholic University of the North in Chile, told National Geographic in an email.

The scientists set sail early in 2024 aboard the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s Falkor (too) research vessel to explore the depths of the southeastern Pacific Ocean. They sent a robotic underwater vehicle, or ROV, equipped with lights and cameras down more than 5,000 feet to livestream the hidden wonders far beneath the waves.

Scientists found a life-form that resembles a living constellation and moves like an underwater tumbleweed; crimson crustaceans with long, spindly legs covered in spikes; and lots of organisms flashing with bioluminescence.

One creature that stood out is a type of “walking” fish, complete with googly eyes and skin that looks crocheted. It’s a kind of sea toad––a type of deep-sea anglerfish famous for its gloomy expression and the glowing lure that dangles in front of its face to attract prey. Its doily-like skin is made up of little needles that likely offer protection and holes for sensory organs. 

The sea toad has modified fins that allow it to walk on the seafloor—partly a hunting strategy and partly because it’s more energy efficient than swimming, Sellanes says. (See a picture of another type of sea toad, called a coffinfish.)

As the first scientific report of a sea toad in the southeastern Pacific, the sea toad is likely a new species, experts say.

“There is very little known about the ecology, behavior, and other aspects of biology of Chaunacops,” or the genus of sea toad, says Bruce Mundy, a retired U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fishery biologist who was not part of the expedition. 

For example, he says, “There have been no studies, to my knowledge” about how their lures actully work.

Marine oases

The researchers mapped four previously unknown underwater mountains, called seamounts, as well as six already known to science.

“The unique nature of the topography of the seamounts allows certain types of species to live and adapt to a lifestyle which can only be found on that particular mountain,” team member Jan Maximiliano Guerra, a Ph.D. student at Catholic University of the North, said in one of the expedition videos. (See photos of more deep-sea creatures.)

“And, therefore, most of the species we find along this mountain range and in the seamounts are unique in nature and cannot be found anywhere else in the world.”

Sellanes adds in another video: “In many ways, they constitute a kind of oasis in the middle of a marine desert.”

There may be well over 100,000 seamounts worldwide, but people have explored less than 0.1 percent of them, according to NOAA. Far fewer are set aside from potentially harmful human activity, such as commercial fishing, bottom trawling, and mining. (Read about deep-sea animals new to science—and already at risk.)

Fortunately, Sellanes says, two of the underwater mountains the scientists explored are already part of marine protected areas.

Scratching the surface

But Sellanes says more seamounts need to be safeguarded. During the expedition, he witnessed giant sponges; fields of sea lilies; seafloor-dwelling octopuses; and enormous, 10-foot-tall bamboo corals—each populating entirely different areas.

“So each seamount is unique, and protecting only a few is not enough to efficiently protect all the diversity of fauna and habitats they host,” Sellanes says.

Many plants and animals found on seamounts are especially vulnerable because they live nowhere else, says chief scientist Erin Easton, a biological oceanographer at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. (Read more about these unique mountains in the sea.)

And while a hundred-plus new species is a significant haul from a single expedition, the team emphasizes that they’ve barely scratched the surface.

“What we explored in each ROV dive is just what we are able to see in a trail of about two kilometers, which is insignificant compared with the huge volume of these structures,” Sellanes says.

Far more new species will remain hidden until scientists return for further exploration. “What we already know about [these deep-sea ecosystems] justifies their protection, but what we still do not know justifies it even more.”

Source: National Geographics

ByAshley Balzer Vigil

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