Complex habitats based on these gases are believed to build up around cold seeps just as they do around hot hydrothermal vents found in mid-ocean ridges. As a result, researchers now hope to find many other new deep-water species unique to the seabed there.
“If true, this is no less important a discovery as the much better known hydrothermal vents found in other parts of the world,” said the WWF Scotland director Lang Banks. “They would give us a unique opportunity to observe some species unlikely to be found anywhere else on the planet.”
Jim Drewery, of Marine Scotland Science, who oversaw the research on the deep water invertebrates, was equally enthusiastic. “The discovery of these new species is absolutely incredible, especially when you consider that the sea snail measures a relatively large 10cm (4ins) yet has gone undetected for decades. This is just the sort of habitat we were hoping to pick up on these surveys.”
Drewery said Marine Scotland Science had narrowed down the location of the cold seep to a small area 260 miles west of the Hebrides in the Rockall-Hatton basin. “Further research is now needed, which would involve going down to take a look at the ocean floor three-quarters of a mile underwater.”
He said he was particularly excited by the discovery of the marine worm Antonbrunnia, which is the first of its kind to be found in the Atlantic. It was discovered by Graham Oliver, an international bivalve expert, inside one of the clams he was confirming as a new species at his laboratory at the National Museum of Wales.
The sea snail Volutopsius scotiae and clam Thyasira scotiae have been named after Marine Scotland’s research vessel MRV Scotia, while the clam Isorropodon mackayi has been named after the mollusc expert David Mackay. The marine worm has not yet been named and is still being examined at the National Museum of Wales.
The discovery of the Rockall cold seep and its precious ecology has raised concerns about trawlers fishing in the region. Scotland’s environment secretary, Richard Lochhead, said the seabed around the cold seep would probably be protected as a result of the discovery of the new species.
“The area where these species were found is not currently fished and the confirmation of a cold seep is likely to result in the region being closed to bottom-contact fishing,” he said.
The International Convention on the Exploration of the Seas, an intergovernmental agency that polices fish stocks in the north Atlantic, has recommended fishing bans at three other sites around Rockall to protect rare cold-water coral, sea sponge colonies and sea fans (or gorgonians) that are being harmed by bottom-trawling.
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