First of all, Happy New Year! Here’s to 2017 – a year (hopefully) filled with pioneering discoveries, innovative conservation and greater scientific outreach across the globe.
I am personally looking forward to 2017 to begin work on my extended research project or dissertation, as part of the MSci degree. I have the amazing opportunity of studying a potentially new species of holothurian (sea cucumber) found at the hydrothermal Longqi Vent Field on the South-West Indian Ridge, in 2011. The project will use the morphological and molecular characteristics of the specimen to determine whether this is a new species of deep-sea holothurian, or whether it is the same species as Chiridota hydrothermica – a species found at the South-East Pacific Rise hydrothermal vents, that was described in 2000 by Smirnov et al. Both will make extremely exciting research projects, either with the chance to describe a newly discovered species, or study the remarkably wide range of the Chiridota hydrothermica species (from Eastern Pacific Ocean vents to South-West Indian Ocean vents).
My prospective supervisor, Dr Jon Copley, recently co-authored a paper on the ecology and biogeography of the new species found at the Longqi Vent Field (Copley et al., 2016). The discovery of six new species at the site (including the comically named Hoff Crab), has led to widespread recognition from a number of popular science outlets, including BBC News, Natural History Museum, Live Science and IFLScience. Although these six species have been confirmed as newly discovered, most specimens collected by the mission have not been formally described, including the holothurian mentioned above.
It was previously thought that there was little or no life in the deep sea due to the lack of photosynthetic energy, but the discovery of unique ecosystems at hydrothermal vents has changed this perception. Life is able to thrive at these sites (despite their toxicity) due to the high thermal and chemical energy produced by the vents, allowing chemoautotrophic bacteria to populate the area. This chemosynthesis, in turn, supports a diverse range of organisms across a number of invertebrate phyla. Hydrothermal vents are even hypothesised to hold the key to the origin of life (Martin et al., 2008).
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