UNCW research sheds light on how creatures of the deep survive in extreme environments

Published: Apr. 1, 2022 at 6:09 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The world’s oceans cover 72 percent of the earth’s surface, yet we have better maps of the moon than we do of our own planet’s ocean floor.

Scientists still know very little about the creatures that live thousands of feet below the water’s surface, but new research led by a UNCW professor is expanding what existing knowledge we have of how those creatures survive.

The team published findings scientists had never uncovered before two weeks ago in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

The images of the bathypelagic zone, more than 3,000 feet under the sea, resemble outer space. Its too deep for sunlight to penetrate, but under the light of remotely operated cameras deep underwater, the detritus falls like snow.

This potion of the deep sea is known as the midnight zone, and is also far too deep for scuba divers. The difficulties accessing the deep are one reason why scientists are looking to the eyes of the creatures who call it home to unlock the mysteries of the ocean.

UNCW associate professor Dr. Lorian Schweikert is actually looking into the eyes of shrimp to answer questions about how they use vision and bioluminescence to survive.

You’d think the creatures at the deepest levels, living in complete darkness wouldn’t need vision, but that wasn’t what the team found in their most recently published research.

“This revealed something we previously had never known, which is that these animals are probably using their bioluminescent light organs for communication in the deep, so really exciting findings,” said Dr. Lorian Schweikert.

Dr. Lorian Schweikert collected hundreds of shrimp from a special deep sea trawling net on a scientific voyage in the Gulf of Mexico back in 2019. The crustaceans are perfect to study as they’re abundant in the food web, easy to collect and play an important environmental role, safely moving carbon dioxide to the bottom of the sea.

The research has very important parallels to human life above the water too.

“Those animals are designed to survive some of the most extreme, cold environments, dark and high pressure environments. Because of that, they have compounds in their body that allow them to withstand different assaults upon them that we aren’t capable of withstanding ourselves. So, by learning about these compounds and learning about these animals, we may be able to solve problems that we our selves are having here in our own society,” said Schweikert.

UNCW has a legacy of advancing what little we know about the deep ocean. From the cutting edge Aquarius underwater lab a decade ago, to several university departments still actively looking to the ocean for breakthroughs in tech, medicine and conservation.

“I’m so proud to be part of UNCW’s institution because it really is a leader in worldwide marine research and a wonderful place for us to train students to do these kinds of projects.”

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