Deep Sea Discoveries and Underwater Aliens

Finding New Life at the Bottom of the Ocean

April 21, 2024
Science Magazine

Aliens. Extraterrestrials. Intergalactic visitors. When most people think of undiscovered species, they often picture bulb-headed green humanoids beaming down from spaceships and speaking of distant planets. Yet still, many hidden, unknown alien races originate and reside in our own world—or deep beneath it. 

A Groundbreaking Discovery

Last month, an international group of scientists exploring the Schmidt Ocean off of the coast of Chile discovered over a hundred new species of underwater creatures. The group collected species from the Nazca Ridge and Salas y Gomez Ridge, a pair of underwater mountain chains in the southeastern Pacific that span across 1,800 miles of the seafloor. 

When mapping this area of the ocean with exploratory robotic technology, scientists found a rich forest of corals home to beady-eyed spindle-legged squat lobsters, blob-like sea toads, and oblong pinkish urchins among other alien-like species.  

Above: Underwater photography of a newly discovered species. Image courtesy of the Schmidt Ocean Institute.

How is it possible that so many fascinating species could go completely undetected by even humanity’s most advanced marine technology for so long? The answer begins with an overall examination of the benthic, ocean-floor communities and their ability to survive conditions as harsh as the vacuum of space itself.

Most benthic animals—dubbed benthos—are invertebrates lacking a backbone. The bottom of the ocean is unforgiving in every sense: the absence of light, thousands of pounds of the entire ocean’s water pressure, icy temperatures, and a very limited food supply make thriving seem impossible. Thus, living in some of the most severe conditions known to man, most benthos have acquired adaptations that enable them to withstand such extreme conditions. 

Above: Puget Sound benthos. Image courtesy of Gustav Paulay of the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Surviving the Impossible

For one, many organisms in cold waters function at lower metabolic rates: their enzymes and metabolic processes have optimized at lower temperatures and high pressures that might be deadly to other species. In addition, many marine invertebrates do not rely on gas-filled organs such as lungs, which are prone to collapsing at deep sea pressures.

Communities of these benthic critters often emerge from special geological circumstances that nonetheless reflect the extremity of the ocean floor. Hydrothermal vents are fissures on the seabed through which geothermally heated water erupts. Oftentimes found near volcanically active areas, these hotspots provide breeding grounds for life amongst the seemingly uninhabitable terrain.

Above: A deep-sea hydrothermal vent emits sulfide minerals that solidify in the water as “black smoke.” Image courtesy of the National Ocean Service.

While these extreme geologic features seem like the volatile dangers of a surface-level volcanic eruption, hydrothermal vents in fact support highly diverse ecosystems. Unlike coral reefs that require sunlight to perform photosynthesis and gain energy, hydrothermal vent fauna survive on chemical energy independent of the sun. This plant life emerges around plumes of seafloor chemicals, using specific bacteria to consume chemicals as food. Serving as the producers at the bottom of the food chain, these self-sufficient benthic fauna provide the foundation for a host of other adapted life including predators, scavengers, and symbionts.

The Ocean Uncharted

If scientists have already found these species before, why are we just now encountering this Chilean deep water life?

Humanity has only managed to explore 5% of the world’s oceans, leaving an unbelievable 95% completely uncharted. Scientists on the research team utilized state-of-the-art remotely operated vehicles to descend 4,500 meters below the depths of the ocean and collect data from ten seamounts. While this mission marks remarkable progress, surely thousands of undiscovered species remain hidden in that elusive 95%.

Above: A bony Chaunacops fish photographed by scientists on the expedition. Image courtesy of the Schmidt Ocean Institute.

What’s Next?

Now that scientists have discovered all manner of species, what do they plan to do next? First, the treasure troves of data that scientists have collected will advance Chile’s marine protection efforts and continue to preserve such biodiverse anomalies. Many of the vibrant coral reefs and sponge gardens of the deep sea include and host vulnerable species that scientists hope to learn more about. In addition, these interstellar discoveries have inspired a landslide of new interest to continue exploring the Earth’s greatest mysteries and the underwater aliens among us.

Kat Zhang

Kat Zhang (Trinity ’27) is a Chemistry and Economics double major. Outside of class, she enjoys doing research at the Matsunami Lab and playing with dogs at the Puppy Kindergarten.

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