A group of hairy-chested Hoff crabs. (Image: University of Southampton)

Marine biologists have discovered six new animal species in undersea hot springs nearly two miles deep in the southwest Indian Ocean—an area already slated for future seafloor mining.

Four of the eight active hydrothermal events explored at Longqi. (Image: J. T. Copley et al.,2016)

Researchers from the University of Southampton and the Natural History Museum in London and Newcastle found the new creatures hiding around hydrothermal vents at a place called Longqi (meaning “dragon’s breath”), about 1,200 miles (2,000 km) southeast of Madagascar, and at a depth of 9,200 feet (2,800 m). This latest research, with its description of six new species, has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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Using a deep-diving remotely operated vehicle (ROV), the researchers managed to explore an area about the size of a football field, and it was littered with more than a dozen mineral spires known as vent chimneys. Some of these spires rise more than two storeys above the seabed, and they attract deep-sea animals who are nourished by the hot fluids streaming out from the chimneys. In addition to hosting marine life, these spires are rich in copper and gold, hence the interest in deep sea mining.

A new species of scaleworm. (Image: David Shale)
A new species of ragworm. (Image: David Shale)

“We can be certain that the new species we’ve found also live elsewhere in the southwest Indian Ocean, as they will have migrated here from other sites, but at the moment no-one really knows where, or how well-connected their populations are with those at Longqi,” noted Copley in a statement. “Our results highlight the need to explore other hydrothermal vents in the southwest Indian Ocean and investigate the connectivity of their populations, before any impacts from mineral exploration activities and future deep-sea mining can be assessed.”

A stalked barnacle. (Image: David Shale)

In addition to the new species, the researchers also uncovered a batch of marine animals known to scientists, including a scaleworm that lives at vents near the Antarctic, and a ragworm that lives at vents in the eastern Pacific some 6,200 miles (10,000 km) away. The new research shows that vent animals are more widely distributed across the oceans than previously assumed.

Sadly, seafloor mining is expected to be a growth industry in the near future. Over 400,000 square miles (about a million square kilometers) has already been earmarked in the high seas of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans by over 16 countries. It’s not clear if this latest survey, which was commissioned by the International Seabed Authority of the United Nations, will have any impact on future mining efforts around Longqi.

[Scientific Reports]