On Saturday 14th May, the DeepSeaCRU team from Plymouth University, working with partners from the University of Oxford, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), and the British Geological Survey (BGS) set off on NERC’s research vessel the RRS James Cook on a mission to explore some of the UK’s tallest mountains, which occur underwater in the North East Atlantic Ocean, off the west coast of Scotland.
Deep-sea ecosystems are some of the most understudied and overlooked habitats in the natural world, and have extremely important roles as regions of biological diversity.
As the pressures from global warming and human activity increase, it is becoming ever more important to understand these habitats so that they can be better protected and preserved. On this cruise, we aim to further our understanding of these important and rare habitats by collecting data to investigate how patterns of population connectivity vary with depth in the deep sea, and how this influences species diversity. In the marine environment, many species do not move as adults (e.g. corals) or move very slowly (sea urchins). This means that for different adult populations to remain connected they rely on dispersal of early life history stages. Most marine species have a larval stage that lives in the water column for a period of time, moving with the currents, before settling in a new area. It is larval dispersal that keeps distant populations connected.
During the cruise, we will be collecting samples of four species for genetics analysis: Two cold water coral species, Lophelia pertusa and Acanella arbuscula, the sea urchin Cidaris cidaris, and the sea cucumber Parastichopus tremulus.
We will be visiting six different sites: Anton Dohrn Seamount, Rockall Bank, George Bligh Bank, Wyville Thomson Ridge, Rosemary Bank, and the Hebridean Continental Shelf.
Anton Dohrn Seamount is a former volcano and stands approximately 1800 m high (taller than Ben Nevis, Snowdon and Scafell Pike!), with its summit sitting approximately 550 m below sea level. East Rockall Bank is a steep escarpment descending into the Rockall Trough to a depth of approximately 1600 m. George Bligh Bank extends from approximately 450 m below sea level down to a depth of 1300 m. The Wyville Thomson Ridge is a rocky plateau that forms part of the Greenland-Scotland Ridge, running from East Greenland to Scotland. The top of the ridge sits approximately 300 m below sea level, running down to depths of over 1000 m. Rosemary Bank Seamount is an extinct volcano that stands approximately 1900 m high, with its summit rising to approximately 500 m below sea level. The Hebridean Continental Shelf extends to depths of over 2200 m and is home to the Hebrides Terrace Seamount, an ancient volcano that rises to approximately 1000 m below sea level.
Follow our progress over the next few weeks as we deploy remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and autonomous unmanned submarines (Autosub) to explore some of the UK’s deep-sea ecosystems.
We are currently on our way to Anton Dohrn Seamount and the science will start on Tuesday evening. Stay posted!
This project is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).
Text by Nicola Foster and Josh Davison, Plymouth University