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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 July, 2003, 09:39 GMT 10:39 UK
Delight in ugly creatures
By Colin Peacock
in Wellington

"We know more about the dark side of the Moon than where we're going. We simply don't know what we'll find."

Coffin fish, NOO
Coffin fish: The bizarre and the not so beautiful
So said marine scientist Clive Roberts as his multi-national expedition left New Zealand to explore the deep-water ridges of the Pacific Ocean's southern fringe.

Working round the clock on board the research vessel Tangaroa, his team mapped out the uncharted sea floor which once formed part of the Gondwanaland coastline and now lies beneath the northern edge of the Tasman Sea.

Using nets and a heavily armoured steel sledge - nicknamed Sherman - they began trawling for creatures at depths as great as two kilometres.

Five weeks later, the Tangaroa docked in Wellington's harbour, right outside New Zealand's national museum, Te Papa, with a huge cargo below deck.

Show, Peacock
Discoveries will inform future management decisions
"It's not quite the Everest of deep-sea discovery, but it's close," said Dr Roberts at the onboard welcome party that afternoon.

"We've got 500 species of fish that we can recognise and at least twice as many different invertebrates," he announced. "Many are completely new to science".

Spectacularly ugly

"People have the perception in science that everything is already known. The truth is we still know so little about much of the world," says Mark Norman, a senior curator at Australia's Museum Victoria - and one of five Australians on the trip.

"There are animals we brought up known only from fossils and presumed extinct".

The frightening fangtooth. (All images courtesy of the Australian National Oceans Office)

As well as being rare, the likes of the walking coffin fish, the wonky-eyed squid and the Pacific spookfish are also spectacularly ugly.

"It's hard to make a living down there," explains Dr Norman.

"Some animals are just a mouth and a soggy stomach. Whatever they bump into, they eat - even if it's twice their bodyweight - because it may be the only meal they get for months.

"It shows how animals have found a way to live in every nook and cranny on this planet."

Dr Norman is particularly fond of the sea spiders which can grow to half a metre wide.

"They can't fit all their organs in the body. They have hollow legs full of guts and ovaries and they wander around sucking the insides out of anemones.

"If you came from another planet and asked to see the most common habitat, you'd be shown the deep sea. Two thirds of the world is ocean. We are the weird ones in many ways," he insists.

Lucky dip deep

Every time Sherman was hauled to the surface, the team had no idea what it would reveal. Caution was required.

Serpent stars, NOO
Serpent stars live on black coral
"It's a lucky dip, but nothing is likely to leap out and latch on to you," says Alan Stewart, manager of Te Papa's fish collection.

"They suffer the bends coming up, and haemorrhage internally. If they haven't already been killed by the pressure changes, they're dying. It's brutal."

Public interest in the environment and the sea is high in New Zealand, so rather than hustle the specimens straight into the lab, the Te Papa scientists put some of the best out on public display.

Rick Webber spent his first Saturday back on dry land in Te Papa's main foyer with a dead basketwork eel draped around his shoulders answering children's questions.

Show, Peacock
The creatures have been a huge hit with the public
But there's more to it than amusing the public and satisfying their own scientific curiosity.

"We need to understand the biodiversity in the seas," says Dr Roberts.

"The Rio convention demands that countries document the species living in their areas. The New Zealand government has made this part of its biodiversity strategy".

"It gives us the opportunity to work out which areas should be protected because they're so strange and so rare," adds Dr Norman.

"It will allow us to make sensible management decisions about where humans do poke around - and where they don't."

The BBC's Lisa Hampele
"An array of strange and wonderful creatures"

Weird ocean life surprises
24 Jun 03  |  Science/Nature
Fishy tale of deep sea monster
23 Feb 03  |  England
Sea monster with a toothache
06 Feb 03  |  Science/Nature
All creatures great and small
29 Sep 02  |  Science/Nature
Giant sea fossil unearthed
30 Dec 02  |  Science/Nature

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