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Into the Deep: Expedition Seeks Life in Ocean Trench

Deep-sea fish
A fish investigating a baited camera on the Atlantic's deep seafloor.
(Image: © RSS James Cook Cruise 62)

Scientists plan to explore one of Earth's coldest, deepest ocean trenches starting Saturday, the first stop in a three-year examination of the ocean's most mysterious depths.

The Kermadec Trench dives 32,963 feet (10,047 meters) deep offshore of New Zealand in the Pacific Ocean. Waters flowing into the trench from Antarctica make the gorge one of the coldest ocean canyons on Earth, according to a statement from the National Science Foundation.

The team will explore life in the trenches by collecting DNA and exploring the deep-sea habitat with remotely operated vehicles such as the National Science Foundation's Nereus ROV and the University of Aberdeen's Hadal-Lander, based in Scotland.

Research teams have explored Kermadec before with ROVs and cameras, finding strange marine creatures such as massive, shrimp-like crustaceans called amphipods that live 4 miles (6 kilometers) beneath the sea surface.

Snailfish snapped at nearly 23,000 feet (7,000 meters) depth in the northern Kermadec Trench. (Image credit: Dr. Alan Jamieson, Oceanlab, University of Aberdeen)

The new expedition, slated to kick off Saturday (April 12), is the first step in an international collaboration designed to systematically study and compare life in deep ocean trenches and neighboring seafloor plains.

"We know relatively little about life in ocean trenches, the deepest marine habitats on Earth," Tim Shank, a biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, one of the participating organizations, said in the statement.

Creatures that survive and thrive in ocean trenches, under immense pressures and without light, feed on each other as well as food and nutrients that flow into the trenches on currents.

"The challenge is to determine whether life in the trenches holds novel evolutionary pathways that are distinct from others in the oceans," Shank said.

Scattered mostly around the Pacific Ocean margin, deep ocean trenches mark subduction zones, where one of Earth's tectonic plates dives underneath another tectonic plate. The sinking plate pushes downward from the surface of the Earth, creating a deep valley, or trench.

The researchers' work will be chronicled from aboard ship on the expedition website.

Email Becky Oskinor follow her @beckyoskin. Follow us @OAPlanet, Facebook and Google+. Original article at Live Science's Our Amazing Planet.