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Scientists offer “sneak peek” into the Galapagos’ forgotten worlds

Scientists from the Charles Darwin Foundation have discovered 30 new deep-sea marine species from fragile coral and sponge communities, offering a glimpse into the least known communities of the Galapagos Islands.

The discovery comes at a crucial time as Ecuador this year raised concerns about a Chinese fishing fleet of 340 vessels operating on the edge of the Galapagos’ protected waters.

Discoveries such as these could prove vital to cementing legislation which will protect these precious waters.

The discoveries were the result of an expedition organised by the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park Directorate, the Ocean Exploration Trust and an international team of deep-sea experts.

Researchers explored the Galapagos’ seamounts – underwater mountains that do not break the surface of the ocean – to depths of up to 3400m using state-of-the-art Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs). Until recently these extinct volcanoes, and the biological communities that live on them, have remained largely unexplored.

Among the species discovered include four squat-lobsters, ten bamboo corals, four octocorals, one brittle star and eleven sponges. These discoveries include the first giant solitary soft coral known for the Tropical Eastern Pacific, a new species of glass sponge that can grow in colonies of over one meter in width.

Dr Pelayo Salinas de León who led the study said: “These pristine seamounts are within the Galapagos Marine Reserve and are protected from destructive human practices such as fishing with bottom trawls or deep-sea mining that are known to have catastrophic impacts upon fragile communities. Now it is our responsibility to make sure they remain pristine for generations to come”.

According to Dr Leigh Marsh from the University of Southampton: “It is a combination of [the seamounts] along with a supply of food that falls from the surface ocean that creates favourable conditions for a diverse array of deep-sea communities to thrive.”

This research was conducted during a 10 day cruise aboard the E/V Nautilus, a 64-meter research vessel specialising in conducting scientific deep-sea exploration of the unknown ocean.

“The many discoveries made on this expedition showcase the importance of deep-sea exploration to developing an understanding of our oceans”, said Dr Nicole Raineault, Chief Scientist of the Ocean Exploration Trust.

Theory of evolution

The Galapagos Islands were where the seeds of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution grew from. Darwin spent five weeks studying the archipelago in 1835 and found that the plants and animals he studied showed a relationship to those on the mainland.

After publishing “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” in 1859, Darwin’s theories cemented the Galapagos Islands as “hallowed scientific ground,” a reputation that continues today.

The isolation of the islands allowed for and forced species to adapt and evolve over time to survive their unique habitats. Even today, as conditions change, animals and plants on the islands continue to develop into new hybrids and species.

Ecuador is trying to establish a corridor of marine reserves between Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia to seal off important areas of marine diversity.

Since Ecuador’s navy announced it would conduct surveillance of the Chinese fishing fleet, China has promised a “zero tolerance” approach to illegal fishing. It has also proposed a moratorium on fishing in the area between September and November, although fishing fleets usually leave the area before that period.  In 2017, the Ecuadorian navy captured a Chinese vessel which was carrying 300 tonnes of marine wildlife, mostly sharks.

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