A polymetallic nodule from the Clarion Clipperton Fracture Zone, purchased from an online dealer. 

Nodules for sale: tracking the origin of polymetallic nodules from the CCZ on the open market. 

[This article originally appeared yesterday in the Deep-sea Mining Observer. ~Ed.]

You can buy a 5-lb bag of polymetallic nodules from the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone on Amazon, right now.

Depending on your vantage point and how long you’ve participated in the deep-sea mining community, this will either come as a huge surprise or be completely unexceptional. Prior to the formation of the International Seabed Authority, there were no international rules governing the extraction of seafloor resources from the high seas. Multiple nations as well as private companies were engaged in exploration to assess the economic viability of extracting polymetallic nodules and tons of material was recovery from the seafloor for research and analysis. Some of that material almost certainly passed into private hands.

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Cut rock samples from the Rio Grande Rise show Fe-Mn crusts (black and gray) growing on various types of iron-rich substrate rocks (pale to dark brown). Photo credit: Kira Mizell, USGS.

A lost continent, rich in cobalt crusts, could create a challenging precedent for mineral extraction in the high seas.

[This article originally appeared yesterday in the Deep-sea Mining Observer. ~Ed.]

The Rio Grande Rise is an almost completely unstudied, geologically intriguing, ecologically mysterious, potential lost continent in the deep south Atlantic. And it also hosts dense cobalt-rich crusts.

The Rio Grande Rise is a region of deep-ocean seamounts roughly the area of Iceland in the southwestern Atlantic. It lies west of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge off the coast of South America and near Brazil’s island territories. As the largest oceanic feature on the South American plate, it straddles two microplates. And yet, like much of the southern Atlantic deep sea, it is relatively under sampled.

Almost nothing is known about the ecology or biodiversity of the Rio Grande Rise.

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All the slime that sticks, we print: 2018 in Hagfish Research

Hagfish. You love them. I love them. Of all the fish in all the seas, none are more magnificent than the hagfish. Across the world, children celebrate the hagfish by making slime from Elmer’s glue, their own mucous, or just, like, something. Seriously, how is is that toddler hands are always coated in some strange, unidentifiable slime?

And never, ever forget:

Your car has just been crushed by hagfish: Frequently Asked Questions.

2018 was a big year in hagfish science. Below are just a few of my favorite studies.

Biogeography

A hagfish in the high Antarctic? Hagfish have previously never been observed in the shallow waters around Antarctic, but a photograph from 1988 was determined this year to be a hagfish feeding on a large pile of clam sperm in shallow water. Neat!

Possible hagfish at 30 m in Salmon Bay in 1988. The white patch is Laternula elliptica sperm.

Incidentally, the reason the photo languished for so long is that it was originally though to be a Nemertean. Because Antarctic Nemertean worms are huge and horrifying.

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Things that go “POP!” in the deep: crushed cups, whole cans, and seafloor spam.

This week, two questions echoed through the hallowed halls of Deep-sea Science. It began, as things these days tend to begin, with a tweet. Dr. Diva Amon challenged deep-sea researchers to show off their shrunken cups from the bottom of the abyss. And we obliged, oh but did we oblige.

Concurrently, though unrelated, Angelo Villagomez announced out symposium on Human Impacts in the Deep Sea and shared several image of the garbage that finds its way to the ocean floor. Cans of cheap beer and pristine Spam littered the deepest reaches of the Mariana Trench, where they will lie forever as they are slowly buried in sediment.

And thus we found ourselves awash in to variations on the same theme: Why did that ocean thing get crushed? and Why didn’t that ocean thing get crushed? Read More

A year of snot-oozing, carcass-scavenging, slime eels: Hagfish Science in 2017.

Hagfish. You love them. I love them. The owner of this sedan has no choice but to love them:

Photo courtesy Oregon State Police.

2017 was a big year for hagfish science.

Big Ideas (the ecologic paradigms that hagfish shifted) 

Heincke’s law is one of those ecologic principles that more often acts as a foil for rejecting the null hypothesis than as a consistent pattern in ecology. It’s most basic summary is: The further from shore and the deeper dwelling a fish is, the bigger it grows. Heincke’s law does not appear to be true for hagfish, whose size appear to have no relation to the depth at which they occur. On the other hand, phylogenetic relationships do seem to play some role in regulating body size in hagfish.

Defense and Behavior (how hagfish do the things that they do)

Hagfish are master escape artists, capable of squeezing in and out of tight spaces barely half the width of their body. This great for getting in an out of rotting whale carcasses on the sea floor, creeping into crevices, and avoiding predators. But how do they accomplish this incredible feat? Hagfish have a flaccid sinus under their skin which allows them to control the distribution of venous blood and alter their body width as they wriggle through narrow passages. Freedman and Fudge identified 9 distinct behaviors which take advantage of this adaptation, including anchoring, forming tight loops to push the body through an opening, and bending the hagfish head 90 degrees to force it through a slit. And there are videos!

The Fudge lab has been busy this year, cranking out some of the most noteworthy work on the incredible behavior of hagfish. In addition to examining hagfish motility, Boggett and friends looked into how those flaccid sinuses aid predator avoidance. The team build wee little guillotines loaded with shark teeth to see how hagfish skin protects the animal from vicious bites. In a year when a truckload of hagfish spectacularly crushed a car, the fact that this research was the biggest breakout sensation in hagfish pop culture says everything you need to know about the compelling results of this study. You can read more about this study at The Verge, Futurity, Popular Science, and plenty of other outlets.

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Japan becomes the first nation to mine a deep-sea hydrothermal vent

Sixteen hundred meters deep, off the coast of Okinawa, a new kind of mining just cut it’s teeth.

Earlier today, the Japan Times reported that a mining tool has successfully extracted zinc and other metals from a hydrothermal vent on the seafloor. There’s not much to go on yet. We don’t know if these were active or dormant vents (though dormant doesn’t mean biologically dead). We don’t know the specific location of the experimental mine site. And we don’t know the footprint of the ore prospect. But we do know that Japan has identified at least 6 potential mining sites within its exclusive economic zone and that plans are moving forward for a commercial mining venture in mid-2020. I’ve only found one report in English and from the look of things, there’s only a press release circulating right now, but I’m certain we’ll be hearing much more about this in the coming weeks.

Japan Agency for Natural resources and Energy

We’re still watching to see what Nautilus Minerals does at Solwara 1 and how manganese nodule mining proposals in the Clarion Clipperton fracture zone are progressing but Japan’s mining efforts present a sea change in how to anticipate future deep-sea mining efforts. Private commercial ventures are dependent on the whims of the global commodities market and subject to national and international regulation. National efforts are driven by the need for resource independence. I was aware of Japan’s efforts, but didn’t realize that they were as close as they are to being ready for production.

For the last 10 years, we’ve been saying that deep-sea mining of hydrothermal vents is imminent. Well, it’s here.

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Protecting the ocean means lots of rigorous, mundane science.

Bathymodiolus manusensis. Photo courtesy Nautilus Minerals.

I have a new paper out today: Population structure of Bathymodiolus manusensis, a deep-sea hydrothermal vent-dependent mussel from Manus Basin, Papua New Guinea.

We sampled two sites in Papua New Guinea where these deep-sea mussels aggregate and looked at their genes to determine if there was any population structure across this relatively small spatial scale (~40 km). We found one homogeneous population. We also looked at representatives from other ocean basins and determined that mussel populations within Manus Basin are younger than those in neighboring basins. This is a pattern we’ve observed in several other studies as well.

This is not, by any stretch, a ground-breaking, paradigm-shifting study. But studies like this, baseline, foundation-building studies, are absolutely essential for conservation biology.

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The Old Man and the Deep Sea

Torben Wolff, legendary deep-sea scientist and last surviving member of the Galathea II expedition, which plumbed the Philippine Trench and recovered biological material from more than 10,000 meters for the first time in history, died in his sleep on May 2, 2017. He was 97.

Torben will be remembered for his monumental contributions to deep-sea oceanography, his commitment to international collaboration in the deep sea, and three generations of mentorship, as well as his tradition of closing deep-sea meetings with a Haka that he learned from Maori during his travels in New Zealand.

Farewell Torben. We’ll see you some day in Fiddler’s Green.