Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Near Icy Waters, Marine Life Gets By Swimmingly

Almost two miles deep into the dark water off the coast of Antarctica, researchers say they've discovered about two dozen new species of marine animals lurking on the seafloor. Geyserlike hydrothermal vents are key to these creatures' survival. The vents release scalding-hot fluids with chemicals that support them.

The Antarctic research team was able to take photos and video of the new species, including yeti crabs, starfish, barnacles, sea anemones — and potentially octopuses.

To take the pictures, researchers deployed a tethered robot from their research ship. About the size of a four-wheel-drive truck, the robot was outfitted with an array of high-definition video cameras and still cameras. The researchers would watch a bank of screens of pictures that the robot beamed up from the seabed.

"You can hear the scientists catching their breath as they think they may have seen something on the cameras — and then cheering, almost as though they were at a football match, when some of these sights reached us," University of Oxford biologist Alex Rogers, who led the expedition, tells All Things Considered host Robert Siegel. Their research is published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS Biology.

Clumps Of Extra-Hairy Crabs

Particularly striking, Rogers said, were the yeti crabs.

"The yeti crabs were literally in heaps around the hydrothermal vents — in densities in up to 600 per square meter [almost 11 square feet] — and all jostling and writhing around to get the best position in the hydrothermal fluid flow," he says. "It really was an incredible sight."

Sometimes, Rogers said, they would capture the crabs crawling up the vent chimneys and fighting with each other for a better spot. Researchers say the yeti crabs they saw are a new species. Yeti crabs currently found in the South Pacific have hairy limbs and claws, Rogers said. But the crabs his team found had hairy chests, too.

It was their appearance that led one of the Ph.D. students on the trip to nickname them "Hoff crabs" — after Baywatch star David Hasselhoff, known for baring his hairy chest.

"Scientists like a bit of lighthearted humor when they've been out at sea for two months," Rogers says.

But if it's a new species, can Hasselhoffius make it into the name?

"Well, we'll have to see," says Rogers, who says he and his colleagues are still in the process of describing this new species.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.