Chinese scientists discover new family of barnacles during expedition to Okinawa

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 December, 2015, 10:37am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 December, 2015, 10:37am

Chinese scientists discovered a new family of barnacles in the East China Sea, and their existence suggests there might be a “Noah’s Ark” of such creatures in the deeper seabed.

Barnacles are usually found in shallow waters. They attached themselves permanently to a surface such as a ship bottom and feed on particles drifting in the water.

But some barnacles also live in extreme environments, such as hydrothermal vents found in places like the Mid-Atlantic ridge.

Hydrothermal vents are often rich in minerals while warming the frigid waters around them, providing a hotbed for life in the deep sea in total darkness .

But the hydrothermal vents also became a hotbed for debate among scientists.

Some believed they provided a shelter for ancient life forms and want them saved from destruction during catastrophic events. Others, however, argued that the life around hydrothermal vents were not old at all because they were constantly invaded and replaced by species from the outside.

The newly discovered barnacle family, called Probathylepadidae, might tip the balance of the debate.

Discovered near a hydrothermal vent in the Okinawa Trough, the barnacle “carries some very primitive features,” such as the complete absence of scales at the stalk-like part by which the barnacle was attached to a surface, said professor Sha Zhongli, lead scientist of the study with the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oceanology in Qingdao, Shandong province.

“That means it belongs to a very ancient family, which is completely different from all other families of scalpelliformes that we know of,” he added.

“I am more inclined to the shelter theory.”

But he said understanding of the new species was still limited.

Only one specimen was found on a soccer-ball sized rock sample retrieved by the deep sea robot “Faxian” during an expedition by scientific research vessel Kexue in 2014.

Scientists were still puzzled by the barnacle’s unique structure and how it functions in the extreme environment.

Sha’s paper, co-authored with retired marine taxonomist professor Ren Xianqiu, was published in the journal Zootaxa. The unique species was named Probathylepas faxian Ren & Sha, after the discoverers and the deep sea robot.

China is a late comer in deep sea studies. Few species have been named after Chinese researchers.

Hardware buildup was fast in recent years due to heavy investment by the government. The country had developed Jiaolong, one of the world’s deepest manned submersibles, as well as a wide range of unmanned robotic vehicles.

But with the rapid increase of valuable samples, there were not enough hands to study them.

Taxonomy is an old branch of science covering the classification of organisms, and the decline of taxonomy was a global problem, but the situation in China was particularly bad, according to Sha.

Many taxonomists were near or beyond the age of retirement, and they had few students to pass on their knowledge and skills.

“We can’t go deep sea without taxonomists. We can’t make discoveries without people who can identify and name new species,” he said.

“To China, the shortage of taxonomists is a greater challenge than the buildup of hardware.”