Seamounts – submarine ‘mountains’ which can rise from the seafloor to heights of several km – are found in every ocean basin on Earth; there are at least 30,000 large seamounts that are over 1 km high, and hundreds of thousands of smaller knolls.
Seamounts are important features of the deep sea for a number of reasons. They span a wide depth range, and in many areas provide the only shallow habitat for animals that cannot survive at the depths of the abyssal plains. Most are volcanic in origin, and so are composed of hard rock, enabling animals like corals and sponges to attach. Their shape and form can also enhance localized water movement and create areas of upwelling and eddies which bring in food and trap animals on the seamount. Together these characteristics can result in some seamounts being biological ‘hotspots’ providing feeding habitats and spawning grounds for fish and other larger animals, even including seabirds and marine mammals. This makes the study of seamount ecology very important for the understanding of ocean ecosystems. However, because seamounts are also sites for commercial fisheries, and potential sources of valuable minerals and heavy metals, there is also an urgent need to ensure sustainable management of human activities.
Despite their biological importance, however, little is known about them. Less than 300 have been surveyed in any detail, and this lack of good information of seamount biodiversity makes it difficult for managers to balance exploitation and conservation.
The new Census of Marine Life Collection on Seamouts (CenSeam), which launched today in PLoS ONE, aims to improve our knowledge of seamount ecology and answer pressing questions for their management. Running from 2005-2010, it was one of 14 field projects comprising the Census of Marine Life program.
Its principle goal was to create an international network of scientists to examine some of the key research questions surrounding seamounts. Out of these questions, two overarching themes developed:
- What factors drive the composition and diversity of communities on seamounts, and how do they differ from non-seamount communities?
- What are the impacts of human activities on the structure and function of seamount communities?
While CenSeam produced a number of papers, compilations and reviews*, not all of the work was finished by the program’s official end in 2010. This ongoing work has now become the core of a special PLoS ONE Collection on seamounts, adding to a number of other collections – covering subjects from microbes and chemosynthetic environments to continental margins – conceived under the Census of Marine Life program.
The Collection is being launched with 10 scientific papers, and two more general reviews of CenSeam: one evaluates the organization, administration, and conduct of the project –what worked and what didn’t in setting up a complex international program; and a second overview which looks at some of CenSeam’s primary findings and their implications for setting future science priorities and developing the best ways to manage and conserve seamount environments and resources.
The 10 papers in the Collection vary widely in subject matter, including:
- detailed descriptions of the faunal communities on seamounts (invertebrates and fishes)
- accounts of new species
- studies on biological characteristics and behavior of seamount fauna
- analyses of similarities and differences between seamounts and other environments (e.g., canyons)
- new results from seamounts in regions of the Indian Ocean and near Antarctica that have not been sampled before.
The Collection is available at www.ploscollections.org/CenSeam
Further papers have been submitted, or are currently being prepared, to add to the Collection in coming months.
* Among these were a book on “Seamounts: Ecology, Fisheries and Conservation”, special issues on seamounts in two journals (‘Oceanography” and “Marine Ecology”), a chapter in a book summarizing the Census of Marine Life, and a review paper in “Annual Review of Marine Sciences”.
This post was written by aimee whitcroft, Web Communications Advisor at NIWA. More information on the CenSeam Collection can be found at http://censeam.niwa.co.nz/.