Deep Sea Researchers Receive Humboldt Memorial Award for Investigating Biodiversity of Arctic Ocean

Deep Sea Researchers Receive Humboldt Memorial Award for Investigating Biodiversity of Arctic Ocean

Dr. Bodil Bluhm from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and deep sea researchers of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, received the 2012 Alexander von Humboldt Memorial Award, Thursday, 21 February 2013, in Frankfurt am Main.

The group of researchers investigated the biodiversity in the Artic deep sea and extended the list of known deep sea dwellers by over 400 new species. The Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung (Senckenberg Nature Research Society) honours the scientists because with this work they have laid an important foundation stone for future research projects in the Arctic.

The sea cucumber is one of the real greats on the Arctic sea bed. With a body size of a few centimetres, it is by far larger than most of the deep sea dwellers. Many other species are not much larger than a grain of sand and more than half of them are so rare and the regions so little explored that deep sea researchers have so far only found them at a few places in the vast ocean. So it is no easy task to record the diversity of animal life in the still predominantly ice-covered and inaccessible Arctic deep sea. Nevertheless, the biologist Bodil Bluhm from the American University of Alaska Fairbanks dared to take up the challenge with the assistance of colleagues from the Alfred Wegener Institute and six other international research institutes.

As part of the ten-year global diversity assessment campaign, Census of Marine Life, the researcher group collated and analysed almost 6000 records from the last thirty years of Arctic deep sea research. By the end, the scientists had counted a total of 1125 invertebrate animals, thereby supplementing the existing list by over 400 new species.

In a second step we wanted to use the data to find out how similar or different the sea bed fauna of the individual deep sea basins and regions of the Arctic deep sea is”, says Bodil Bluhm, who did her Ph.D. at the Alfred Wegener Institute. Her conclusion: the life forms hardly differ from region to region. “We were able to prove that the massive mountain ranges in the Ocean do not present a barrier to distribution. We also discovered that the central Arctic fauna is related to the animal world in the North Atlantic deep sea whilst the Pacific influence is only very small.” The reason for the close relationship between the species in the North Atlantic and the Central Arctic was the Fram Strait. The seaway between Spitsbergen and Greenland formed a connection between the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean.

The Senckenberg Society also considered these results to be a considerable scientific achievement and has acknowledged the work of Bodil Bluhm and colleagues with the Alexander von Humboldt Memorial Award for 2012. The award is endowed with a prize money of € 6000 and will be presented to the winners tomorrow during an award ceremony in the Senckenberg Natural Museum in Frankfurt am Main.

“The article shows how biodiverse and rich the life on the bed of the Arctic deep sea really is. This knowledge is an important foundation for future work on how climate change is affecting biodiversity“, explains Prof. Volker Mosbrugger, Director of the Senckenberg Society.

As far as the deep sea ecologist and co-author Dr. Thomas Soltwedel from the Alfred Wegener Institute is concerned, the findings of the study represent a snapshot of the biodiversity in the Arctic deep sea. “There are certainly hundreds of species which we have not yet recorded. Every time we travel to the Arctic and collect specimens, we find new types which have not yet been described”, he explains.

The results of the study serve as a foundation for the further investigations into the development of a polar marine ecosystem in times of global climate changes. “As a result of increased temperatures and the decline in the ice, the Arctic Ocean is subject to considerable change”, explains the deep sea ecologist. He and his colleagues at the Alfred Wegener Institute have been investigating this change for over ten years at the Arctic deep sea observatory HAUSGARTEN. Soltwedel: “It was one of the first great surprises when we discovered that this deep sea ecosystem is changing far more quickly than we had so far imagined. With a delay of only one to two years, we are seeing changes in the habitats of the deep sea which we can attribute to the change we have observed on the surface.”

Biologists such as Bodil Bluhm and Thomas Soltwedel are therefore using the species list as a benchmark. Using this ocean-wide survey of deep sea fauna will enable them to understand how life is developing on the bed of the Arctic deep sea in the coming years. But not only are the scientists watching the change in biodiversity. The commercial sector is interested to know what things look like at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and what lives there because the retreating ice cover also favours deep sea fishing. “For this reason it was important for us to take stock of the deep sea dwellers before man leaves his “footprint” on the sea bed of the Arctic”, says Thomas Soltwedel.

Press Release, February 26, 2013