Scientists have discovered new sponges living in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (C.C.Z.), a specific area in the Pacific Ocean, 13,000 feet below the sea level! These sponges live on rock nodules that are targeted for deep-sea mining.
Plenaster craigi is the name of these new tiny sponges partly because of the abundant amount of stars that make up their backbones. Scientists Dr. Lim, a sponge taxonomist from the National University of Singapore, and a research team led by Adrian Glover characterized and classified the sponges based on both their appearance and genetics. Dr. Glover says, “They’re living in a very food-limited environment…It’s quite remarkable that they can survive.” What makes these guys fascinating, despite the conditions they are living in, is not only are they a new species, but also a new genus. This is similar to discovering not just dogs also a group that contains wolves, coyotes, and jackals.
Why is this important you ask? Dr. Smith says, “This is one of the most abundant animals found living on the nodules and we didn’t even know it existed.” In the past 40 years, over hundreds of scientific expeditions have visited the C.C.Z. where nodules lie half-buried on the seafloor, and we have just found them! The abundance makes it important because “Every animal you collect from the seafloor seems to be a different species,” says Dr. Vanreusel, a marine biologist at Ghent University in Belgium.
The International Seabed Authority has allocated 15 areas for exploration in the C.C.Z. to several mining companies affiliated with nations that include China, Japan, and Singapore. Thankfully, none of these licenses have been granted for actual mining yet. The Plenaster craigi grow on the nodules and are vulnerable if mining for nodules commences. The International Seabed Authority has already reserved wide swaths of the seafloor for protection, but you cannot protect the living marine life on the seafloor if you do not know what animals live down there.
Another more pressing issue is the huge sediment plumes that mining activities will generate, says Dr. Vanreusel. Plenaster craigi could be useful as an indicator species because of its abundance. This sponge will clearly be disturbed from the plumes and abundant enough to count, and therefore Plenaster craigi could help researchers figure the effects of deep-sea mining and maybe the possibilities for recovery.
In conclusion, researchers are racing against mining companies to study life on the seafloor, but lack the number of scientists with the expertise to characterize and classify new species. Since for three years, the research group has been calling them sponge species A.