Public Release: 

11th International Deep-Sea Biology Symposium

Biologists gather to fathom life in the oceans

DOE/Sandia National Laboratories


IMAGE: A deep-sea stone crab living on a blue whale bone on the ocean floor of the Santa Cruz Basin. view more

Credit: Craig Smith, University of Hawaii

The threat to deep-sea biodiversity from whaling, a new disease attacking life at volcanic vents and why some deep-sea creatures grow to giant size are all topics on the agenda at the 11th International Deep-Sea Biology Symposium from 10-14 July 2006.

Held every 3 years, the Symposium is the world's foremost gathering of scientists studying its largest habitat - the deep ocean. This year more than 300 deep-sea biologists from 27 countries are attending the conference in Southampton, UK.

The Symposium has twin themes of exploring the unknown and understanding our impact in the vast deep-sea realm, which covers more than 300 million km2. This is 60 per cent of our planet's surface and more than 30 times larger than the tropical rainforests. The 340 papers and posters that delegates are presenting at the meeting include the following discoveries:

Impact of whaling on deep-sea biodiversity

Whaling threatens newly-discovered deep-sea species with extinction, according to a study by Craig Smith at the University of Hawaii and his colleagues. When the bodies of dead whales sink to the ocean floor, they create island-like habitats for deep-sea life that last for decades. So far biologists have discovered 28 new species that may depend exclusively on whale carcasses for food. Whaling, however, deprives the ocean floor of this resource.

Smith and his colleagues applied simple models from conservation biology to explore the impact of whaling on the extinction of deep-sea animals that live on whale carcasses. Their results suggest that species extinctions may have already occurred in the North Atlantic where great whales were decimated in the 1800s. Extinction may also be ongoing in the Southern Ocean, where intense whaling persisted until the 1970s.

These findings highlight the need to consider the effects of whaling and other types of fishing on entire ecosystems, rather than focussing narrowly on target species. "The possibility that whaling has caused species extinctions at the remote deep-sea floor gives me new appreciation for the scale of human impacts on the ocean," says Smith. "We need to recognise that the oceans consist of a stack of tightly connected ecosystems - over-fishing or pollution in surface waters is bound to cause problems thousands of metres below."

An image of a deep-sea stone crab living on a whale bone is available to accompany this story . Smith is presenting the research at the Symposium on Thursday 13 July at 1720 BST.

New disease attacks life at volcanic vents

A newly discovered fungal disease is attacking mussels around deep-sea volcanic vents near Fiji. The disease was first seen on a recent expedition led by Cindy Van Dover of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. The yeast-like fungus turns the bodies of the mussels black as it multiplies and consumes the energy stores of the host tissues. "In black body mussels, most of what one would call mussel tissue is really a mass of budding and multiplying yeast, with very little host tissue left," says Van Dover. "We expect that there will be massive mussel mortality at the site". So far only the mussels that thrive around volcanic vents have been infected, but these animals are vital "habitat engineers", forming beds that are home to many other species.

Van Dover proposes that scientists disinfect their deep-diving submersibles and equipment between dives to prevent the spread of the disease. "Yeasts in general are notorious for being able to withstand desiccation and so might be especially easy to transport," she warns. "Operators of the submersible assets we use are working with us to develop rational strategies for ensuring that we minimize transport of disease vectors from one site to another." There may be other diseases out there yet to be discovered, she adds, though outbreaks as large as this one may be rare.

An image of an infected mussel is available to accompany this story. Van Dover is presenting her findings at the Symposium on Thursday 13 July at 1220 BST.

Biologists explain why some deep-sea creatures are giants, others tiny

Some deep-sea creatures have evolved to giant size and others have become miniature because the deep ocean is really a huge island, say Craig McClain of Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Alison Boyer of the University of New Mexico and Gary Rosenberg of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia. When isolated on islands, small-bodied species often evolve into giants - such as the giant tortoises of the Galapagos - while large-bodied species often become tiny. Many deep-sea species are smaller than their shallow-water relatives, but there are also monsters in the depths such as the giant and colossal squid.

McClain and his colleagues examined snails from the Atlantic to see whether the "island rule" could explain patterns of body size in the deep sea. Sure enough, species with small shallow-water relatives are larger in the deep sea, while those with large shallow-water relatives are smaller. The researchers conclude that the deep sea has acted as a gigantic island during the evolution of species that have colonised its depths.

This research is being published in the Journal of Biogeography and a detailed press release describing the work will be available from Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute ( from 1220 BST on Monday 10 July, when McClain is presenting the research at the Symposium.

Deep-sea image competition and media reception

In addition to presenting results from recent expeditions and experiments, the 11th International Deep-Sea Biology Symposium includes the BP Kongsberg Underwater Image Competition 2006. This competition has attracted more than 250 entries that showcase the best images and video clips from the deep sea. The entries are being exhibited during the Symposium at the Southampton Civic Art Gallery, where the winners will receive their prizes at an evening reception on Thursday 13 July.

There will be a media reception during the Symposium at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, on the evening of Tuesday 11 July. Journalists will be able to meet conference delegates and view the image competition entries. Researchers will be presenting video footage from recent projects and expeditions including:

  • the SERPENT project, which uses commercial remotely-operated vehicles owned by the oil and gas industry as tools for deep-sea science around the world;
  • images from recent deep-sea expeditions by IFREMER, the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea;
  • video and first results from a US expedition that ended July 7 studying the aftermath of an undersea volcanic eruption in the Pacific earlier this year.
The BBC Natural History Film Unit will also show a preview of the deep-sea footage from the "Ocean" programme of the acclaimed "Planet Earth" series, to be broadcast this autumn.

"This is the largest deep-sea biology symposium to date," says Professor Paul Tyler of the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, who chairs the National Organising Committee for the Symposium. "This is driven by the exceptional interest in deep-sea biology that has resulted in part from EU-funded projects."


Images available:
A deep-sea stone crab living on a blue whale bone on the ocean floor of the Santa Cruz Basin (image credit: Craig Smith, University of Hawaii). A black-body mussel from Fiji Basin. The body discoloration is associated with massive and pervasive infection of the mussel tissue by microscopic black yeast; a normal, healthy mussel would have the coloration of a raw oyster (image credit: Cindy Lee Van Dover).

High-resolution images are available at

Contact information

Journalists wishing to arrange interviews with Symposium delegates or attend the media reception please contact Kim Marshall-Brown (tel +44 (0)23 8059 6170, email or Jon Copley (tel +44 (0)7941 556040, email

Notes for Editors

Full details of the 11th International Deep-Sea Biology Symposium are available at

The National Organising Committee for the Symposium includes researchers from the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton; the University of Aberdeen; the Natural History Museum; the University of Liverpool; the University of Plymouth; the Institute of Zoology and the Scottish Association for Marine Science.

The Symposium is supported by the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (a joint partnership between the UK's Natural Environment Research Council and the University of Southampton). It is being held at Southampton Solent University and is sponsored by the International Seabed Authority, Kongsberg Maritime, BP and Transocean.

An underwater image and video competition accompanies the Symposium, sponsored by BP and Kongsberg Maritime. The winners will be announced at the Symposium. For further details of competition images and video clips that are available for media use please contact Lis Maclaren email, tel +44 (0)23 8059 6357.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.