Hamburg : European experts aboard a German scientific vessel have uncovered a veritable universe of exotic marine life in the dark ocean depths around Antarctica.
Researchers uncovered more than 700 new species, including crustaceans, molluscs, free-swimming worms and carnivorous sponges.
The creatures came to light as an international team scoured the sea floor at depths of more than 20,000 feet below the Southern Ocean.
Three sampling expeditions were mounted in the Weddell Sea as part of the ANDEEP (Antarctic benthic deep-sea biodiversity) project. They revealed an unexpected richness of diversity that took scientists by surprise.
Among the specimens were 674 shrimp-like isopods, 80 percent of which were new to science.
Creatures living in the deepest regions appeared to have strong links with species from other oceans. A key question still to be answered is whether shallow water species colonised the deep ocean, or vice versa.
The findings, reported in the journal Nature, suggest that the glacial cycle of advancing and retreating ice has led to a mingling of species from shallow and deep-water habitats.
Experts from 14 research organisations conducted the surveys from the German research ship Polarstern between 2002 and 2005. Biological specimens were collected from depths of between 800 metres (2,500 feet) and 7,000 metres (22,000 feet).
Angelika Brandt, from the University of Hamburg in Germany, who led the research, said: "The Antarctic deep sea is potentially the cradle of life of the global marine species.
"Our research results challenge suggestions that the deep sea diversity in the Southern Ocean is poor," she added.
"We now have a better understanding in the evolution of the marine species and how they can adapt to changes in climate and environments."