An explosion of marine life discovered in Majorcan waters

Researchers from the Spanish Institute of Oceanography identify species from a sample during a scientific campaign on the seamounts of the Mallorca Channel aboard the "Ángeles Alvariño".

25-10-2019Susana López Lamata

A scientific campaign in Majorca has discovered more than 120 different species of marine life in the Mallorca Channel, including deep-sea sponges, white prawns crustaceans and tiny starfish that nobody knew existed in the Mediterranean.

A team of 12 scientists and 16 crew members from the oceanographic vessel, Ángeles Albariño who are taking part in the campaign have been showing how they check the richness of fauna in a particular area to determine whether it’s of geological interest and needs special protection.

Una explosión de vida habita los montes submarinos de Mallorca

The Biodiversity Foundation of the Ministry for Ecological Transition wants to include the three underwater mountains in the Natura 2000 Network as a Site of Community Interest.

The Life Intemares project is the largest marine conservation project in Europe and nine Spanish zones, including these mountains, are being studied and will be added to that network.

The scientists have 21 days to unlock the secrets of the three mountains and confirm whether these habitats have the high ecological value that they’re believed to have to and study geological forms known as “pockmarcks.”

To study the sea bed, the crew throws a benthic skate into the sea for 10 minutes to catch samples, then seven biologists sift through it to detect and separate all living organisms that are entangled in the grey mass that’s just emerged from 300 metres beneath the surface.

Amongst various pieces of plastic they find several fish, prawns, some starfish, dozens of tiny tiny moving dots and a jellyfish and the specimens are separated into baskets and take them to the laboratory, where the main ones are quickly weighed and measured then returned to the sea to make sure they survive, while other species are kept in the lab for identification and further analysis.

During this second of three projects, a biologist from the Balearic Oceanographic Centre, Xisco Ordinas, detected a type of starfish, an ophiura, which had only ever been seen in the Atlantic.

The seven biologists are specialists in starfish, crustaceans, fish, sharks and rays and sponges, which means the work can be distributed for identification before being added to a faunal list.

Una explosión de vida habita los montes submarinos de Mallorca

Within an hour 29 different species were identified, and that’s just the first of the six samples that they will taken during one day.

If biologists can’t distinguish one slippery sponge from another from the deck they launch a dredge into the sea to extract sediment then raise it to the surface, so that four geologists can analyse it.

The third sampling is also dredge, with a mound of rocks, which is lowered into the water and when its brought back to the surface its full of carbonated stones and fossil remains of bivalves and corals.

Next the scientists submerge a photogrammetric sled with a camera that resists pressures of up to 2,000 metres, to record images of a rocky outcrop, then another benthic skate is put in the water to collect samples at about 120 metres.

What emerges is still an explosion of life: sepias, annelids, different fish and echinoderms, crustaceans, mollusks and within a couple of hours 76 different species of that sampling have been identified.

In the next test they will look for species of sharks, rays and chimeras. A hydrographic rosette samples water at more than 100 meters deep, which is then filtered and sent to the laboratory to retrieve any DNA of skin cells and secretions that may be present then use the genetic material to search for those species in the Balearic Islands.

An experimental drag is carried out in trawling areas to find out exactly what is in the waters that are home to important red shrimp and crayfish and crew members and biologists help to bring it back up so that they can measure, weigh and return the specimens, especially sharks as fast as possible.

Back at the port, scientists continue to separate the different species, collect all the data and put it in the computer.

It’s an expensive business, this campaign is costing roughly 11,000 euros a day.


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