Marine discovery reveals more than 100 species

A chaunacops fish seen at a depth of over 1,300 metres. Image: Schmidt Ocean Institute

More than 100 new species of marine life may have been discovered living on large underwater mountains off the coast of Chile.

The discoveries, including deep-sea corals, glass sponges, sea urchins and squat lobsters, were made during an expedition organised by the Schmidt Ocean Institute. An international group of scientists on research vessel Falkor Too used an underwater robot, capable of descending to depths of 4,500m, to collect data from 10 sea mountains, which will be used to advance Chile’s marine protection efforts.

The scientists found that each mountain hosted a distinct ecosystem, many of which are vulnerable, including thriving deep-sea coral reefs and sponge gardens. The scientists are analysing the specimens to confirm if they are species new to science.

Also discovered were four sea mountains, the tallest of which at 3,530 meters, was explored and mapped for the first time, and unofficially named Solito by the science team.

"You always expect to find new species in these remote areas, but the amount we found is mind-blowing,”

Javier Sellanes, Universidad Católica del Norte
A squat lobster documented in coral at a depth of 669 metres. Image: Schmidt Ocean Institute

The expedition was led by Dr Javier Sellanes of Chile’s Universidad Católica del Norte, who said, “We far exceeded our hopes on this expedition. You always expect to find new species in these remote and poorly explored areas but the amount we found, especially for some groups like sponges, is mind-blowing.”

Detail of a sponge documented at 1238.67 metres. Image: ROV SuBastian / Schmidt Ocean Institute

The expedition focused on the Nazca and Salas y Gómez Ridge, both inside and outside Chile’s jurisdiction, to collect data that could support the designation of an international high-seas marine protected area.

A spiralling coral at 1,419 metres. Image: ROV SuBastian / Schmidt Ocean Institute

The Salas y Gómez Ridge is a 2,900km-long underwater mountain chain comprising more than 200 seamounts that stretch from offshore Chile to Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island. The majority of the ridge exists outside national jurisdiction. Additionally, the scientists explored two of Chile’s marine protected areas, the Juan Fernandez and Nazca-Desventuradas marine parks.

Sellanes said, “These thriving and healthy ecosystems indicate that the Nazca-Desventuradas and Juan Fernández Marine Parks effectively protect delicate marine habitats.”

Scientists on research vessel Falkor Too. Image: Alex Ingle / Schmidt Ocean Institute

A second expedition along the Salas y Gomez Ridge began on 24 February 2024. Underwater dives will be livestreamed on Schmidt Ocean Institute’s YouTube channel as scientists explore areas deeper than 600m depth for the first time.

Schmidt Ocean Institute will be operating in the Southeast Pacific, exploring the waters off Peru and Chile throughout 2024.

“Full species identification can take many years, and Dr Sellanas and his team have an incredible number of samples from this amazingly beautiful and little-known biodiversity hotspot,” said Schmidt Ocean Institute executive director Jyotika Virmani.

“Schmidt Ocean Institute is a partner with the Nippon Foundation Nekton Ocean Census Program, which has set a target of finding 100,000 new marine species in the next 10 years and, once identified, these new species will be a part of that.”

Javier Sellanes studies unexplored seamount. Image: Alex Ingle / Schmidt Ocean Institute

California-based Schmidt Ocean Institute was established in 2009 by Eric and Wendy Schmidt to advance oceanographic research, discovery and knowledge, and catalyse sharing of information about the oceans.

Remotely operated vehicle deployed from Falkor (too). Image: Alex Ingle / Schmidt Ocean Institute