QUB research adds 184 deep-sea species to extinction red list

The research found that human activity such as deep-sea mining has threatened molluscs that live in hydrothermal vents with extinction.

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Scientists at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) have conducted research that has led to the addition of 184 deep-sea species to the international Red List of Threatened Species.

Human mining activity, increasing levels of land and sea pollution, and the climate crisis are some of the reasons behind the new classification of these deep-sea species, and scientists are warning that there is a need to identify conservation priorities for deep-sea marine life.

The Red List of Threatened Species tracks how close a species is to becoming extinct. It is curated and managed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which is recognised as the world’s top authority on extinction categories for different species. Of 140,000 species on the red list, only 15pc are marine and barely any are from the deep sea.

The deep sea is the world’s largest and most sprawling environment for life on Earth and its remote nature makes it hard for scientists to study species that live there, especially the ones in hydrothermal vents – deep-sea ecosystems one-third the size of a football field with a very high density of life.

The research paper, titled A Global Red List for Hydrothermal Vent Molluscs, was published in Frontiers in Marine Science yesterday (9 December). The research was led by QUB PhD student Elin Thomas and supported by the Marine Institute.

The team applied IUCN criteria to assess the extinction risk of mollusc species that live in hydrothermal vents.

“[Hydrothermal vents] are increasingly targeted for their natural resources, and we wanted to better understand the threat this poses to the rich marine life found there,” Thomas said. “As one of the dominant species groups at vent habitats, we focused our study on molluscs.”

The research found that of the 184 species assessed, almost two-thirds (62pc) are listed as ‘threatened’ – a broad category before ‘extinct in the wild’ and ‘extinct’. Within the threatened species, 39 are critically endangered, 32 are endangered and 43 are vulnerable.

Thomas and the team found that vent molluscs in the Indian Ocean are at highest risk of extinction, with all of them listed under the threatened category and 60pc being critically endangered.

This coincides with the distribution of mining contracts granted by the International Seabed Authority, Thomas said, highlighting the risk that mining poses to vent species and “clearly demonstrating why we need these data”.

“In fact, we found that seabed management and mining regulation consistently had the greatest impact on a species’ extinction risk, so we need regulations in place as a matter of urgency. This research should be used to develop new policies to protect these species before it is too late.”

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