‘The World That Darwin Never Saw': Scientists Discover 30 New Marine Species in the Galapagos
International marine scientists have discovered 30 new species in the deep waters off the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, highlighting how unique the ecosystems of the islands are as well as how little we know about the deep sea.
After Charles Darwin first visited in 1835, the Galapagos became famous for their biodiversity and for their endemic species found nowhere else in the world. Darwin, then 26, spent five weeks surveying the archipelago, reported Smithsonian Magazine.
"The natural history of these islands is eminently curious, and well deserves attention," Darwin later said, reported Smithsonian Magazine. "Most of the organic productions are aboriginal creations, found nowhere else."
At the same time, the plants and animals he studied still showed a "marked relationship" to those on the mainland, leading Darwin to form the seeds of his groundbreaking Theory of Evolution, Smithsonian Magazine said. After publishing "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection" in 1859, Darwin's theories cemented the Galapagos Islands as "hallowed scientific ground," a reputation that continues today, Smithsonian Magazine reported.
The magic is in the isolation. The removed geography of the islands from the rest of the world allowed for and forced species to adapt and evolve over time to survive their unique habitats on each island, according to WWF and Discovering Galapagos.
Even today, as conditions change, animals and plants continue to develop into new hybrids and species, adding to the islands' rich history. In 2017, a population of finches on the islands were discovered in the process of becoming a new species, reported BBC. In 2019, scientists found a species of giant tortoise on a remote Galapagos island that they hadn't seen alive for 110 years and that they'd feared extinct, reported AP News. As recently as February of this year, conservationists studied 30 giant tortoises partially descended from two extinct species, AP News reported.
"Evolution, in general, can happen very quickly," said Roger Butlin, a speciation expert talking about the finches, reported the BBC.
In the latest discovery, scientists from the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF), the Galapagos National Park Directorate, the Ocean Exploration Trust (OET) and an international team of deep-sea experts identified 30 new deep-sea invertebrate species within the Galapagos Marine Reserve. They published their results in the journal Scientific Reports and called their discoveries "the world that Darwin never saw" in a CDF press release.
The species were found on seamounts, underwater mountains that do not break the ocean's surface, the release said. Until recently, these extinct volcanoes and the flourishing communities of organisms that live on them were largely unexplored.
"The deep-sea remains as earth's last frontier, and this study provides a sneak-peak into the least known communities of the Galapagos Islands," marine scientist and study leader Pelayo Salinas de León said, reported Yahoo!
Researchers measured and observed specimens collected during one of the ROV dives. Ocean Exploration Trust / Nautilus Live
Expedition crews used state-of-the-art Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs) to explore up to depths of 3400 meters, the CDF release said. According to the release and Science Times, the new species of marine life include:
- 10 new species of bamboo corals and four new octocorals, including the first giant solitary soft coral in the Tropical Eastern Pacific;
- 1 new species of brittle star;
- 11 new sponge species; and
- 4 new species of squat lobsters.
"The many discoveries made on this expedition showcase the importance of deep-sea exploration to developing an understanding of our oceans…" OET Chief Scientist Nicole Raineault said, the CDF release stated.
According to Science Times and National Geographic, the Galapagos Marine Reserve protects these seamounts from fishing activity and deep-sea mining. The discovery came after Ecuador raised concerns about a massive Chinese fishing fleet operating on the edge of the Galapagos' protected waters, reported Al Jazeera.
Ecuador's former minister of the environment Yolanda Kakabadse told Public Radio International that the Galapagos should be "the last place on Earth to be affected by irresponsible actions of any sort," the news report said.
Salinas de León added, "These pristine seamounts are within the Galapagos Marine Reserve and are protected from destructive human practices such as fishing with bottom trawls or deep-sea mining that are known to have catastrophic impacts upon fragile communities. Now it is our responsibility to make sure they remain pristine for the generations to come," the CDF release said.
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>
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