OSC researcher breaches final scientific frontier
By Kelly Foss
Deep space is no longer the final frontier – it’s the deep sea. That’s according to Dr. Annie Mercier, a researcher with the Faculty of Science. Based at the Ocean Sciences Centre and cross appointed with the Department of Biology, Dr. Mercier is engaged in her own form of “frontier science” in an area that has seen little exploration.
“We already know more about outer space than we do about the deep sea,” she said. “Now we have the technology to look and we are starting to do so. However, this kind of research is very rare in the world. We’re only just at the very beginning but there’s a lot of potential.”
Dr. Mercier began her research in this unique area through a collaboration with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). The organization had been conducting multi-species surveys and collecting samples from depths of 1,500 metres. At the time, they were primarily concerned with commercial species but Dr. Mercier only had eyes for the by-catch. Her main area of interest is invertebrates and although many of the animals didn’t survive the collection process, which involved trawling and bringing them up in nets, some did. Others were frozen and preserved to be studied at a later date.
“We started with a small lab at the OSC, keeping a few sea stars, basket stars, whelks, sea anemones and shrimp,” she said. “We saw that if we kept them in the dark and kept the water temperature cold enough we could study them.”
Soon she was pulled into another collaboration between Memorial researchers and DFO to study deep-sea corals. Since no one was looking at the reproductive biology of the organisms she was invited to participate. Although much knowledge has been gathered on tropical corals and shallow reefs, Dr. Mercier says there’s a huge gap between the corals that have been studied to date and deep-sea corals.
“We’re starting from scratch basically,” she said. “We’re getting back to the basic science because we know nothing about them, how they reproduce, how they feed and what they do. So it’s very new.”
In 2006, only a few months after her studies on deep-sea animals and corals began, Dr. Mercier and a student presented some preliminary results at a deep-sea biology symposium in the United Kingdom.
“In my presentation I was explaining that we had been able to keep deep-sea animals and corals alive, were monitoring them and having them spawn and feed as they would in their natural habitats,” said Dr. Mercier. “As I saw their eyes getting bigger I realized that this was something really rare. Having this window on their biology and behaviour was truly not being done by many labs. In fact, many of these species had never been seen alive.”
She says Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Ocean Sciences Centre in particular, is in a unique position to study the animals that make the deepest depths of the ocean their home. Successfully collecting live samples and keeping them alive long enough to study them is the biggest challenge to most researchers in this. It often requires a gentle touch, specialized equipment like pressurized tanks, a constant cold water source and a quick trip back to the home base of operations with the live specimens. Because the animals that live in the deep are adapted to different pressure levels than those close to the surface, Dr. Mercier is hoping that the university can get its own pressurized vessel to aid in keeping species in familiar environmental conditions. She is currently co-writing a proposal looking for funding for such equipment and a dedicated deep-sea research lab.
Dr. Mercier’s collaborations continue, most recently with the Marine Institute. At her request, MI spent time this summer investigating whether mini remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) could be used to collect live animals.
“For my program it would be a plus if we could use the DFO surveys, large multidisciplinary cruises and the expertise of researchers at the Marine Institute to get our hands on live samples,” she said. “I’m looking forward to further exploring that possibility. It would be great training for MI students working with ROVs and my students would have projects with live animals or samples.”
Dr. Mercier says there is no end to the research possibilities of the deep sea, considering there are likely millions of species that have never yet been seen.
“The deep sea has possibly the highest biodiversity on Earth,” she said. “It’s amazing to look at pictures from down there and see the colours, the diversity and the strange animals. It’s a new area that’s just full of promise.”