Deepest-living fishes caught on camera for the first time
7 October 2008
The world's deepest living fishes have been filmed for the first time.
Scientists filming in one of the world's deepest ocean trenches have found groups of highly sociable snailfish swarming over their bait, nearly five miles (7700 metres) beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean. This is the first time cameras have been sent to this depth.
"We got some absolutely amazing footage from 7700 metres. More fish than we or anyone in the world would ever have thought possible at these depths," says project leader Dr Alan Jamieson of the University of Aberdeen's Oceanlab, on board the Japanese research ship the Hakuho-Maru.
"It's incredible. These videos vastly exceed all our expectations from this research. We thought the deepest fishes would be motionless, solitary, fragile individuals eking out an existence in a food-sparse environment," says Professor Monty Priede, director of Oceanlab.
"But these fish aren't loners. The images show groups that are sociable and active - possibly even families - feeding on little shrimp, yet living in one of the most extreme environments on Earth.
"All we've seen before of life at this depth have been shrivelled specimens in museums. Now we have an impression of how they move and what they do. Having seen them moving so fast, snailfish seems a complete misnomer," he added.
Although some species of snailfish live in shallow water and even rock pools, the hadal snailfish are found exclusively below 6000 metres. Here they have to contend with total darkness, near freezing temperatures and immense water pressure - at this depth the pressure is 8,000 tonnes per square metre, equivalent to that of 1600 elephants standing on the roof of a Mini car. They feed on the thousands of tiny shrimp-like creatures that scavenge the carcasses of dead fish and detritus reaching the ocean floor.
Hadal snailfish live only in trenches around the Pacific Ocean, with different species confined to each region: the Chile and Peru trenches off South America, the Kermadec and Tonga trenches situated between Samoa and New Zealand in the South Pacific, and trenches of the North-West Pacific including the Japan trench, which Priede's team is currently investigating.
The work is part of Oceanlab's HADEEP project - a collaborative research programme with the University of Tokyo - devised by Priede to investigate life in the hadal region of the ocean, which is anything below 6000 metres down. Program leader for the project is Professor Mutsumi Nishida, director of the Ocean Research Institute at the University of Tokyo.
The project has been funded by the Nippon Foundation in Japan since 2006 and by the Natural Environment Research Council since 2007. The latest cruise to the Japan Trench started on 24 September and ended yesterday, 6 October; it was organised by Dr Asako K. Matsumoto, HADEEP research manager. This particular cruise was funded by the Nippon Foundation, via the University of Tokyo.
The deep-sea equipment needed to survive the extreme pressure at these depths was designed and built by the Oceanlab team specifically for this mission. The submersible camera platforms, or "landers", take five hours to reach the depths of the trenches and remain on the seafloor for two days before the signal is given for them to surface.
The team has been keeping an expedition blog, exclusive to Planet Earth Online, a daily news site from the Natural Environment Research Council. The magazine website, which was launched last week, includes video footage and photographs of the expedition as well as blogs, podcasts, features and news.
NERC Press Office
Natural Environment Research Council
Polaris House, North Star Avenue
Swindon, SN2 1EU
Tel: 01793 411561
Mob: 07917 557215
1. Background information on the HADEEP project can be found on the Planet Earth Online HADEEP blog section.
Video-footage and photographs of the snail fish can be downloaded the NERC website press features section.
2. Interviews can be arranged with Professor Monty Priede, Director of Oceanlab. Please contact:
University of Aberdeen Press Office:
Jennifer Phillips - Tel: 01244 273174
Natural Environment Research Council Press Office:
Marion O'Sullivan - Tel: 01793 411727
Tamera Jones - Tel: 01793 411561
3. The hadal zone is unique. It accounts for 45% of the total ocean's depth yet consist of very narrow trench system, most of which are found around the Pacific Rim. These deep trenches are created when the heavier oceanic tectonic plate collides with the lighter continental plates causing a subduction zone, where the depth can plummet very steeply to over 10,000 metres, nearly seven miles.
Because they are so deep the hydrostatic pressure can be up to one tonne per square centimetre. The technical challenges associated with both extreme hydrostatic pressure and distance from the surface means that very few research expeditions have been carried out in this region.
More information can be found in Beyond the Abyss in the Planet Earth Online HADEEP blog section.
4. Oceanlab is the sub-sea research facility of the University of Aberdeen. Its engineers lead the world in creating systems capable of operating down to 11000 metres (36000 feet) enabling scientists to investigate life throughout the world's oceans. Testing and engineering services are also offered to industry through the Oceanlab Business Unit.
5. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funds world-class science, in universities and its own research centres, that increases knowledge and understanding of the natural world. It is tackling major environmental issues such as climate change, biodiversity and natural hazards. NERC receives around £400m a year from the government's science budget, which is used to provide independent research and training in the environmental sciences.
Press release: 54/08
- Planet Earth Online HADEEP blog section
- University of Aberdeen
- University of Tokyo
- Nippon Foundation
Recent press news
- Billion-year-old water could hold clues to life on Earth and Mars
- New Director of Science for NERC
- Plants use underground networks to warn of enemy attack
- BIOMASS mission given go ahead to launch in 2020
- Dr Katharine Giles
- New Director for the British Antarctic Survey
- Plans to strengthen UK-Indian collaboration in Earth sciences and environmental research
- CryoSat-2 mission reveals major Arctic sea-ice loss
- UK and USA collaborate in airborne climate science projects
- New capital investments for NERC