Researchers Find Underwater Lost World


Sept. 17, 2006 — -- Two recent expeditions off the coast of Indonesia have revealed a remarkable "lost world" of marine species that researchers believe are new to science, including a shark that "walks" on its fins.

"It was extraordinary," said Roger McManus of Conservation International, which conducted the expeditions along with the Indonesian government. "These expeditions uncovered what we believe are almost 60 new species to science."

One of the most unusual finds are two new small epaulette sharks that swim among coral reefs and have an odd way of moving around.

"They sort of walk on their pectoral fins," McManus said. "They spend a lot of time on the bottom and they're hunting for mussels and crabs and the things that live in the sand or on the sand. They're extraordinary animals."

The team also discovered a variety of other species, including 20 new corals, eight shrimp species, and 24 new fish including a colorful "flasher" wrasse. Decked out in bright pink, yellow, blue and green hues, the male rapidly "flashes" different colors as part of a mating ritual.

The animals were discovered in an area called the Bird's Head Seascape in the northwestern part of Indonesia's Papua province, one of the richest underwater habitats on Earth. It's in an area known as the "Coral Triangle" that includes Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and the Solomon Islands.

Researchers working to establish more extensive protections for the region said more than 1,200 species of fish and 75 percent of the world's known coral are found there.

The seascape faces increasing threats due to over fishing, McManus said, and from fishing methods that use dynamite that destroys reefs. Pollution from land-based mining and logging operations also create problems in coastal waters, he said.

"All of that activity results in pollution in the oceans," McManus said. "These are very complex ecosystems. And their health depends on having a wide variety and diversity of animals that inhabit them."

The Indonesia discoveries highlight how little is known about animals and habitats below the ocean surface, scientists said. It's believed only a fraction of the creatures in the sea have been discovered.

Approximately 217,000 animals have been identified in the world's oceans, according to the Census of Marine Life -- a 10-year, 70-nation effort to inventory the planet's undersea biodiversity that will be complete in 2010.

"Big surprises remain under our noses," said Census of Marine Life program director Jesse Ausubel in an email to ABC News. "Some experts believe 2 million marine animals remain to be identified."

Some researchers are worried that threats to the ocean from global warming will prevent them from studying the millions of creatures they may not even know about yet.

A growing body of recent scientific work warns of immediate problems for the world's oceans from global warming. Scientists blame the warming on humans burning fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

"We have a lot of cause for concern," said McManus. "There's a lot of evidence that the oceans will become more acid, that the warming will significantly change the whole atmosphere and food production by putting effluents into the air that are causing global warming."

Last week 19 top U.S. and European climate scientists released a report saying humans are responsible for warming the tropical Atlantic and Pacific oceans where hurricanes form, making for stronger storms.

In July, a panel of U.S. government researchers said that the ocean is becoming more acidic as it absorbs carbon dioxide released by cars, factories, and power plants. The increased acidity can dissolve the calcium exoskeletons of tiny coral and plankton, which experts say could substantially alter undersea life by eliminating a vital link in the food chain.

Higher water temperatures are also causing widespread coral "bleaching" around the world, from Australia's Great Barrier Reef to the Caribbean, which in 2005 suffered the worst bleaching ever recorded. The elevated temperatures can eventually kill the coral and in turn eliminate habitat for a variety of sea creatures.

In the Bering Sea, scientists reported earlier this year that warming ocean temperatures are forcing animals like walrus and gray whales further north in search of food.

In 2005, climate researchers at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography reported that 84 percent of total heating of the Earth system over the past four decades had gone into the oceans.

With statistics like that in mind, research teams said they will soon be back to the Bird's Head Seascape, racing to study and protect this underwater "lost world" before it disappears.

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