Museum Victoria Scientists Discover New Species Thanks to Robotic Submersible
Remotely Operated Deep Sea Vehicle Explores the Ocean’s Depths
Three new species of sea cucumber have been discovered by Museum Victoria scientists almost a thousand metres beneath the surface of the ocean. The sea cucumbers were discovered on a British-led expedition for new life on seamounts and hydrothermal vents 1500 kilometres (940 miles) south of the island of Madagascar. The project involved more than twenty international marine engineers and scientists, including Museum Victoria marine biologists Mark O’Loughlin and Melanie Mackenzie.
Commenting on the deep sea exploration mission, O’Loughlin stated:
“We were able to describe three species of sea cucumber totally new to science. New technology provided the very rare opportunity to publish colour photos of the new species for fellow scientists.”
The identification of the sea cucumbers was made possible by the expedition’s remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, a remote-controlled robot capable of traversing the ocean floor, collecting samples, and taking video and photographs. Operators back on the ship control the ROV’s robotic arm, guiding it to collect specimens as they appear on a video screen. Samples are then sorted and preserved by the scientific team as part of this marine study.
Sea cucumbers belong to the phylum called Echinodermata which also includes sea urchins, crinoids and starfish. Sea cucumbers are a very ancient marine animal, so named as their elongated bodies superficially look-like a cucumber in appearance, although our team members at Everything Dinosaur can find no resemblance themselves. These animals probably evolved in the Cambrian but their fossil preservation potential is relatively poor and very few fossil specimens have been found when compared to other members of the Echinodermata.
Melanie Mackenzie added:
“Specimens often lose their colour during the preservation process, so by the time they’re back at the lab, they look completely different. The ROV allows us to not only access new environments and take samples, but also to take video and photographs of animals in their natural environments.”
Small Remote Operated Vehicle
The ROV is about the size of a small, family car and can work at depths of up to six kilometres (over three and a half miles), opening up a whole new world for scientists. But while the ROV is useful in exploring new environments, O’Loughlin insists that it is just one of many research tools available to marine scientists.
“You still need the scientific expertise to interpret what you find down there, which is what we brought to this collaboration. We’re proud to belong to a global community of such esteemed institutions.”
The project was led by Professor Alex Rogers (Oxford University) and funded through a grant from the UK-based Natural Environment Research Council. The three new sea cucumbers will be housed at the British Museum of Natural History (London) for future research.
Australian scientists will soon have greater access to ROV technology, with the Marine National Facility’s new research vessel called “Investigator” due to be launched this year.
Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the support of Museum Victoria in the production of this article.
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