The sun sets behind Neptune (illustrated here by artist Dario Gradi) Photo: Robert Gauthier/New York Times
After years of decline, an iconic part of the planet’s sea life is on its way to extinction. Voyager One, which launched in 1977, captured the remarkable image that is now considered one of the most iconic photographs in all of the history of space exploration. It features the majestic aurora borealis, which blurs in the darkness like gold and black over the solar system’s youngest moon. But the photo that has become a permanent part of Earth’s collective imagination is now at risk of losing its star. A team of scientists have discovered a mysterious diminutive and long-beaked creature that lives in the frigid ocean depths of the Southern Ocean.
The creature is a eurypterid, the second largest sea fish on Earth after the whale shark. Unfortunately, because they’re so big, eurypterids are actually very vulnerable to being eaten by the fish whose parts of them are easier to cut out. Right now, the sharks are dominating the habitats where eurypterids live in the Southern Ocean. This could be why the fishes are vanishing from the Southern Ocean, scientists suspect. The fish’s food source is being eaten by sharks, while the carnivorous sharks’ mouths are also a food source. But because this could just be a cyclical issue, eurypterids are not the only ones in trouble, and the demise of these ancient creatures could be followed by more problems. One worry, based on the existence of several different eurypterid species, is that eurypterids may be competing with the same species for habitat as well. Furthermore, because eurypterids are usually found in deep ocean waters, there is the fear that their ground-level prey species may be abandoned or cannibalized by marine creatures, or worse, that the lack of prey would change a species’ genetic makeup by decreasing the number of embryos it has.
There are a few steps that scientists could take to try to help save the eurypterids in the Southern Ocean, such as moving the Antarctic ice shelf in order to block the way the sharks can move over to food sources in the depths. But scientists agree that any successful solution for the species will need to come from the locales where eurypterids live. As Ian Tattersall, who led the study and is a professor at the University of Cambridge, told NPR, the current situation is “disheartening.”
And Tattersall explained that something needed to be done about this because there could be other species on the verge of extinction in the Southern Ocean that will follow eurypterids into the darkest depths of the ocean if nothing is done to save them. “It’s important for the Southern Ocean, and even more important than that,” he said.
Read the full story at NPR.
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