After five years and 45 research expeditions with researchers from 13 countries, the world’s largest oceanic research enterprise is finally complete.
The Atlas Project sent underwater robots into 12 unexplored locations in the deep, northern Atlantic. There researchers uncovered a dozen newly identified species, including fish, cold-water coral and sponges.
Among the new findings is a type of coral growth, known as Epizoanthus martinsae, which thrives on black corals over 400 metres deep (1,300 feet).
Other discoveries include a type of sedentary animal resembling moss, called Microporella funbio, which was found in an undersea mud volcano off the coast of Spain.
Another moss-like animal, named Antropora gemarita, was also found filtering and feeding particles of food drifting in the deep sea.
Sponges and corals may not seem like important animal species in the grand scheme of things, but in the deep sea they form the foundation for most ecosystems.
Everyone knows how important it is to look after tropical rainforests and other precious habitats on land, but few realise there are just as many, if not more, special places in the oceanMurray Roberts, the ATLAS coordinator
Marine biologists actually refer to them as the ‘cities’ of the deep, providing food and shelter for many more types of fish. In a rapidly changing world, however, these remote ecosystems appear particularly vulnerable to human activity.
Oceans absorb up to a third of the carbon in our atmosphere, and research from the ATLAS project suggests half of all cold-water coral habitats are at risk from warming temperatures.
“In ATLAS we’ve studied most vulnerable ecosystems in the deep Atlantic and we now understand how important, interconnected and fragile they really are.”