Deep-ocean cameras capture ‘living fossils’

MSNBC, July 15, 2010

Remote-controlled cameras sent down to depths of more than 4,500 feet in the Coral Sea have brought back unprecedented views of six-gilled sharks, giant oil fish, swarms of crustaceans and nautiluses that have been compared to “living fossils.”

The images were captured at Osprey Reef, off the coast of northeast Australia, 220 miles (350 kilometers) from Cairns. The Deep Australia research team, led by Justin Marshall of the Queensland Brain Institute, said the findings will contribute to deep-sea conservation as well as neurobiology.

“Osprey Reef is one of the many reefs in the Coral Sea Conservation Zone, which has been identified as an area of high conservation importance by the [Australian] federal government,” Marshall said in a news release. “Therefore, it is paramount that we identify the ecosystems and species inhabiting the area.”

The team developed deep-sea cameras and instrument platforms to document the creatures of a deep-sea realm beyond the reach of sunlight.

“We simply do not know what life is down there, and our cameras can now record the behavior and life in Australia’s largest biosphere, the deep sea,” Marshall said.

The scientists focused their attention on nautiluses, relatives of squids and octopuses that still live in shells, as they have for millions of years. “Learning more about these creatures’ primitive eyes and brain could help neuroscientists to better understand human vision,” research student Andy Dunstan said.

Marshall pointed out that squid nerve cells gave scientists their first insights into how nerve cells function and communicate. “We are now returning to these original model systems, both for their own intrinsic interest and also to better understand brain disorders which lead to conditions such as epilepsy,” he said.

In September, the researchers are scheduled to travel to the Peru Trench, off South America’s western coast, where they plan to film and capture deep-sea species more than a mile beneath sea level. One creature they hope to encounter is the giant squid, which has the largest nerve cells found in nature.

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