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Possible New Species Found in Ocean Crossroads

(Image credit: Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, INDEX-SATAL 2010.)

SAN FRANCISCO A "Bubblegum coral" that features large, knobby polyps is among the swarm of possible new species found at an oceanic crossroads by a joint Indonesian-U.S. expedition this year.

Scientists from both countries unveiled their findings for the first time here at the 2010 fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union on Monday.

Two ships from the United States and Indonesia respectively explored the so-called "Coral Triangle" a region where currents from the Pacific and Indian Oceans bring together different species from Asia and Australia to mix within Indonesia's Sulawesi Sea.

"It's what we consider the crossroads of different water masses," said Wahyu Pandoe, senior scientist with the Indonesia Agency for the Assessment & Application of Technology.

The meeting of so many different species appears to have boosted the diversity of both beautiful and bizarre creatures within the 2.3 million-square-mile crossroads, researchers said. The area currently serves as home for more than 65 percent of the world's reef-building species.

Meet the corals

As many as 50 animal species caught on high-definition video appeared to be new to science, in addition to possibly 40 new coral species such as the Bubblegum coral, known formally as Paragorgia arborea. [Related: See more of the potentially new species .]

"We have to be careful because we cannot describe new species from images, but they look different enough so that they could be new species." said team member Santiago Herrera, an MIT researcher who also works at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass.

Those species clung to a diverse range of environments. Shrimp and barnacles clustered around the acidic waters near deep sea vents, while snails, lobsters and worms inhabited wooden logs and even coconuts.

The possibilities for life get even more complex because of Indonesia's many islands, not to mention the past rise and fall of sea levels. Members of the same species trapped on the wrong sides of a temporary land bridge created by falling sea levels may have eventually diverged into new species, while rises in sea level could have led to new mixing among different species.

"It's an area that's very special because it has 17,000 islands, which create great potential for different habitats in the coastal regions and in the great sea," Herrera told OurAmazingPlanet after the press conference.

Underwater marvels

The expedition found much of the sea life while mapping a giant underwater volcano called Kawio Barat, which rises almost 12,000 feet (3,700 meters) above the seafloor.

Escaping volcanic gas mixes with the seawater to create enough acidity to eat rock and turn the seafloor features white. Much of that ongoing volcanic activity appeared in the form of yellow sulfur vents that spewed dark plumes of sulfur dioxide.

"The yellow material is sulfur that has flowed down and built up around the vents like candle wax," said Dave Butterfield, a scientist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle.

The escaping gases also created towering chimney structures near many of the vents. Such structures form when hot magma leaking from the volcanoes meets the cooler seawater and leaves behind minerals that accumulate over time, Butterfield explained.

By land and sea

Butterfield was one of many scientists who watched the underwater exploration from afar, rather than on one of the two ships. Streaming high-definition broadcasts gave a front-row view to experts from Jakarta, Indonesia and Seattle, as well as other centers.

"They were really able to drive expedition because they could see and hear everything that was going on [with the] ship in real time," said Stephen Hammond, a NOAA geophysicist who helped lead the expedition. "They could talk to operators of the [remote operating vehicle] and direct them to go here, go there."

Triumph of technology aside, the expedition also seems to mark a successful ocean exploration partnership that evolved from President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo in June 2009. Obama spoke at the time about building scientific and technological partnerships with Muslim countries; Indonesia has the world's largest population of Muslims.

The scientists all voiced their eagerness to continue with the planned five-year expedition, and to begin confirming some of their new species findings upon a return trip to the Coral Triangle.

You can follow LiveScience Senior Writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @ScienceHsu.

Jeremy Hsu
Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.