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NOAA researchers may have discovered two new organisms on the Aleutian seafloor

sea pen
Photo courtesy of NOAA
A video still of NOAA's remotely operated vehicle capturing the unique looking sea pen.

Scientists aboard a federal research vessel may have discovered two new species in the Aleutian Islands this summer.

Between early May and late July, the 224-foot NOAA research vessel Okeanos Explorer was on a seafloor mapping expedition in Alaska, when — using a remotely operated vehicle — researchers stumbled upon two unique looking species.

Rhian Waller, a lead biologist with the expedition, said they found a sea pen and a sea sponge that had features — like size and coloring — that had never been seen before.

The research team encountered the sea sponge in an area that could be confused for a coral reef in the Caribbean, according to Waller.

“It was hard even to count the number of sponges that we saw,” Waller said. “There’s this huge diversity of life — diversity of sponges, diversity of corals. And then the diversity of fish, crabs and sea stars — all these other organisms that use these corals and sponges for habitat.”

She described the new species as “ecosystem engineers,” creatures that modify their environment and create new habitats. She said sea pens and sea sponges can control water flow with their bodies, and smaller organisms live in them as protection from predators.

“Their whole body is forming this habitat, which increases the number of general species that live in the area,” Waller said. “So they're really, really important for the deep-sea habitat that they’re in.”

Waller said a big driver of the NOAA expedition was seeing what organisms live on the seafloor in unexplored regions of Alaska. Using high-tech machines that swim in the deep sea and take high-definition photos and videos, researchers also discovered sea stars and corals that have never been documented in the Aleutians before.

“The Aleutians are really one of the unique areas in the globe,” she said. “There’s this huge diversity of different species that we don't yet truly understand why it's there or why this area is really great for it.”

Waller said the sea pen and sea sponge have been sent to the Smithsonian Institution to confirm they are new species.

Sofia was born and raised in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. She’s reported around the U.S. for local public radio stations, NPR and National Native News. Sofia has a Master of Arts in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism from the University of Montana, a graduate certificate in Documentary Studies from the Salt Institute and a Bachelor of Arts in Studio Arts from the University of Colorado Boulder. In between her studies, Sofia was a ski bum in Telluride, Colorado for a few years.
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