Exploring deep-sea biodiversity in Java

23 March 2018 | Research
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The scientists plan to survey a total of 29 sites between Jakarta and Cilacap over the 14-day journey

"Most of the world is ocean, and many of us don't realise that most of the world is quite deep. The average depth of the ocean is almost 4,000m and the deep is a world that a lot of us cannot comprehend," said Professor Peter Ng, Head of the NUS Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

In the hopes of gathering more information about the deep in Southeast Asia, Prof Ng, together with Dr Dwi Listyo Rahayu, Senior Research Scientist at the Research Center for Oceanography of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, will be leading a team of 30 researchers from Singapore and Indonesia on a 14-day scientific expedition to study deep-sea marine life in the area off the southern coast of West Java. Called the "South Java Deep-Sea Biodiversity Expedition 2018", this is the first time deep-sea exploration of the biodiversity in this largely unexplored part of the Indonesian sea will take place.

Tying in with RISING50 — a celebration of 50 years of diplomatic ties between Singapore and Indonesia, this project reaffirms the depth and diversity of the long years of alliance between the academic and scientific communities of the two countries.

“This is the culmination of 15 years of discussions and explorations of possibilities,” said Prof Ng, chief scientist for the Singapore team. “This is the first time that Singapore and Indonesia are organising a deep-sea biodiversity expedition together and we are all very excited to find out what animals are present in an area that is practically unexplored by any biologist. There is certainly a wealth of biodiversity still to be discovered – much of it poorly known and new to science. We cannot conserve what we do not know.”

Dr Rahayu, who is the chief scientist for the Indonesian team, added, “This deep-sea expedition will reveal the diversity of demersal organisms on the southwestern part of Java Island, the area where almost no exploration has ever been conducted. It will certainly incite a strong maritime spirit among young Indonesian scientists participating in the expedition to go forth and seek the many interesting animals that live in the deep-waters of their country!”

Work on understanding the deep sea is gaining in importance, opined Prof Ng, particularly due to the increased interest in deep sea mining for resources and food.

“These days more and more organisations are starting to look at the deep sea as a resource; for fisheries, for gas, for oil, for mining. We know the deep sea has a lot of these resources and more and more organisations want to go there and use these resources. Sure, you can use these resources, but how do you use it in a sustainable way? One way is to find out what is there, understand their biology and the limits of what they can and can’t take. You can’t just go there and catch every lobster and fish and sell them then one day go back and say ‘Oh actually we’ve wiped them out. Oh well.’ That ‘oh well’ is not acceptable anymore,” he elaborated.

This is the first time that Singapore and Indonesia are organising a deep-sea biodiversity expedition together and we are all very excited to find out what animals are present in an area that is practically unexplored by any biologist. There is certainly a wealth of biodiversity still to be discovered – much of it poorly known and new to science. We cannot conserve what we do not know.

The team set off on 23 March and will be on sea for 14 days, to return on 5 April. Travelling on board Indonesian research vessel Baruna Jaya VIII, the researchers will sample the seabed at depths of between 500m and 2,000m. As the area they are surveying has been mostly untouched, they hope to uncover new records, as well as rare and previously undiscovered species of animals. The researchers on the team consist of experts in a range of different marine organisms — Crustacea (crabs and prawns), Mollusca (shells), Porifera (sponges), Cnidaria (jellyfish), Polychaeta (worms), Echinodermata (starfish and urchins), and fishes, who will study and characterise any new species.

Both Prof Ng and Dr Rahayu have participated in many deep-sea expeditions in the region, and also in the discoveries of hundreds of new and rare deep-sea crustacean species.

Recounting his many experiences, Prof Ng shared, “Our past expeditions had unearthed bizarre Darth Vader-like sea cockroaches, bloated oil-filled fishes with poorly developed eyes, eerie wraith-like crabs as well as spectacularly coloured lobsters.” He added that on one expedition in Philippines waters, of the more than 1,500 species of crabs, shrimps and lobsters found, over 150 were new to science.

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Prof Peter Ng (2nd row, fourth from left) with the expedition team and the vessel they will be using

In this Indonesian expedition, the researchers have plotted out 29 sites they hope to survey using a variety of deep-sea sampling methods, including dredges and beam trawls that will be sunk into the water to capture samples. The samples obtained will be sorted, photographed, preserved and labelled while on board the vessel. If possible, samples will also be kept alive in special aquariums chilled at a temperature of 10 degrees Celsius for additional observation, study and even filming.

After the expedition, the samples will be studied by the scientists from both countries, looking at factors such as characteristics, biology and whether they can be harvested in a sustainable manner. This could take up to two years and there are plans for the results to be shared and discussed in a special workshop in Indonesia in 2020, and later collated and published.

See press release.