Epic Antarctic voyage complete: analysis begins

Part of a sea lily ‘meadow’ at 550 m on the Admiralty. (Photo: DTIS, IPY-CAML)

Part of a sea lily ‘meadow’ at 550 m on the Admiralty. (Photo: DTIS, IPY-CAML)

Tangaroa and 44 intrepid voyagers successfully completed the most comprehensive survey of marine life ever undertaken in the Ross Sea region. They returned to Wellington on 20 March after an epic 50-day, 7140 nautical mile voyage, bearing more than 37 000 biological specimens, and images of seafloor communities never seen before.

The focus of the voyage was to survey biodiversity to provide a fuller picture of the Ross Sea ecosystem and what makes it tick. The information will be used in fisheries management and as a baseline for monitoring the effects of climate change and human activities. The survey is also contributing to a circum-polar view of Antarctic marine biodiversity as part of the international Census of Antarctic Marine Life.

Despite encountering the worst sea ice conditions witnessed in the region in 30 years, the multi-agency team sampled 39 sites from the shelf, slope, abyss, and seamounts – including some areas and habitats never sampled before. They gathered a wealth of information on the region’s biological and physical characteristics, from the sea surface to depths of 3500 m.

NIWA’s Deep Towed Imaging System (DTIS) captured 55 hours of footage and 12 500 still images of the seafloor. This allowed scientists to view seafloor communities in situ and revealed new insights into the behaviour, interrelationships, and distribution of seafloor dwellers and their habitats.

The survey is likely to reveal many species new to science, including nine potentially ‘new’ fish species, several new deepsea molluscs, and a new and particularly large species of hydroid (a coral-like organism). The painstaking work of formally identifying, describing, and naming them will draw on taxonomic expertise from around the world and will take several years.

The invertebrate specimens – covering some 51 groups – are being processed at NIWA’s Invertebrate Collection, while the fish specimens have gone to Te Papa. Post-voyage analysis will include DNA barcoding, and tissue analysis aimed at determining feeding relationships among the species.

This voyage was part of New Zealand’s flagship project for the International Polar Year, made possible by new government funding. The project is a major collaborative effort between several New Zealand government agencies and research providers, led by the Ministry of Fisheries and with additional governance provided by Land Information New Zealand (LINZ), Antarctica New Zealand, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and NIWA. The voyage was led by NIWA with funding administered by LINZ.

For more information and links, see: www.fish.govt.nz/en-nz/ Environmental/Seabed+Protection+and+Research/IPY+CAML/ default.htm and www.niwascience.co.nz/rc/antarctica/ipy-caml/

Research subject: Antarctica