After a massive iceberg broke away from Antarctica, it revealed a long-hidden world of creatures on the seafloor

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The research vessel Polarstern in the gap between iceberg A74 (right) and Brunt Ice Shelf (left).

  • Last month, an iceberg the size of Los Angeles, called A74, broke off of Antarctica’s Brunt Ice Shelf and floated away.
  • Researchers aboard the Polarstern vessel happened to be nearby, so they investigated the area of the seafloor that had been covered by the iceberg, half a mile down.
  • They found marine creatures that had been hidden for decades, including anemones, sea stars, sponges, marine worms, fish, and sea pigs. They also collected samples.
  • The researchers captured hours of video footage and thousands of underwater images. A selection of their most interesting photos are below.
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The researchers aboard the Polarstern research vessel found themselves in the right place at the right time last month. They were sailing near Antarctica’s northern rim when a giant iceberg broke off the continent.

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Crew members of the Polarstern prepare to deploy an underwater camera system.

The ship was some 3,000 miles from the southernmost tip of South America, not far from the Brunt Ice Shelf, which is replete with giant, growing cracks. On February 26, one of those cracks tore through the shelf, and an iceberg of more than 490 square miles (1,270 square kilometers) splintered off. This known as a calving event.

The iceberg, named A74, is about the size of Los Angeles, and more than 20 times the size of Manhattan. As it moved away from Antarctica, it revealed a part of the sea floor that hadn’t seen sunlight in 50 years.

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A view of the gap between iceberg A74 (right) and the Brunt Ice Shelf, where new ice has started to form.

The Polarstern crew waited for strong winds in the area to abate, then entered the gap between the A74 and the ice shelf on March 13. The scientists’ goal: investigate the portion of the Weddell Sea bed that had been covered by up to 1,000 feet of thick ice for decades.

The Polarstern crew deployed a camera instrument called the Ocean Floor Observation and Bathymetry System, or OFOBS.

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Crew members of the Polarstern prepare to submerge the Ocean Floor Observation and Bathymetry System.

They towed it behind the the ship on a long cable, submerging the OFOBS up to half a mile under the surface.

The OFOBS recorded five hours of footage and took thousands of photos.

The crew also deployed buoys that could measure the temperature and salt content of the water in the newly created gap. Data from the buoys could tell scientists how quickly that part of the Antarctic is warming.

Once OFOBS reached the sea floor, it spotted various creatures living among stones that had tumbled into the water from the ice shelf above.

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A sea anemone attached to a stone under the Antarctic ice.

Most of the creatures the cameras spotted were sessile animals: organisms like anemones that attach themselves to rocks or the ocean floor and don’t move.

Most of the species were filter feeders, like sea sponges.

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A sea sponge nearly a foot wide is affixed to a small seafloor stone.

These immobile creatures eat microscopic algae and other tiny organic particles in the water that float near their stony abodes.

According to Autun Purser, a member of the OFOBS team, the presence of these filter feeders wasn’t a surprise. But some of the findings shocked his team.

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A 1.5-foot-wide stone heavily populated by filter feeding animals, including large sponges.

“I was expecting fewer, larger filter feeding animals (sponges mainly),” Purser, an oceanic researcher with the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, told Insider via email from aboard the Polarstern.

That expectation was based, in part, on findings from a group of British researchers that also drilled more than half a mile into the ice shelf last month, 162 miles from the area Purser’s team was exploring. That team found sponges living on stones under the ice.

Purser’s team was startled to see many creatures swimming around, rather than staying stationary.

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A marine worm leaves a spiral trail of poop on the sea floor.

“I was not expecting to see octopus and fish, or many mobile animals, and they were actually there,” he said.

The OFOBS spotted sea cucumbers, brittle sea stars, mollusks, worms, at least five fish species, and two types of octopus.

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A stone housing a brittle sea star, or ophiuroid. The white curled features are the starfish’s arms, raised to help it capture prey and food.

Using a grabbing device aboard the OFOBS, the scientists collected specimens of some of the creatures, as well as silt from sea floor.

The OFOBS also glimpsed a cute type of sea cucumber called a sea pig.

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Sea pigs, or holothurians, feed on organic material on the ocean floor.

These translucent, water-filled creatures have tube-like legs — sometime on their heads — that help them scuttle about in the deepest, darkest parts of every ocean on the planet. 

It’s a bit of a mystery what, precisely, sustained this diverse, underwater ecosystem in the absence of sunlight. Most organic food stuffs and algae hang out in parts of the ocean where they have access to the light they need to survive.

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An anemone surrounded by the poop trails of a long-departed marine worm.

By collecting more seafloor samples and visiting this area of the Weddell Sea again in the future, the Polarstern researchers hope to answer that question.

Purser said the team’s observations show that marine ecosystems can be quite diverse and abundant, even if there’s only a moderate amount of food available.

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A view of the Weddell Swa between the Brunt Ice Shelf and the A74 iceberg that broke off the shelf in February 2021.

“Possibly everything happens over a longer timeframe, animals more slowly growing, etc.,” he added. “But to determine if this is the case, repeat observations of the under-ice community, whilst still under ice, would be needed.”

The team hopes to one day use autonomous underwater robots to investigate parts of the ocean that were formerly trapped under the ice.

This isn’t the first time Antarctica has lost a giant iceberg, and it won’t be the last.

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A crack in the Brunt Ice Shelf that eventually birthed iceberg A74, as seen from the air on January 12, 2021.

“It is entirely natural for sections to calve away from ice shelves. As ice flows off the land, the ice shelf grows and eventually reaches a size which is unstable,” Adrian Luckman, a glaciologist at Swansea University in Wales, previously told Insider. “Some calving events are small and go unnoticed, but every few years a large one such as this happens.”

Researchers aboard the Polarstern said icebergs the size of A74 slough off every decade or so.

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A TerraSAR-X satellite image of the A74 iceberg, left, in the Weddell Sea of Antarctica as it breaks off from the Brunt Ice Shelf.

In 2017, an iceberg the size of Delaware broke off the continent’s Larsen C Ice Shelf.

Luckman thinks another iceberg will break off the Brunt Ice Shelf in the coming weeks or months.

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Florida stone crab claws are one of the priciest seafoods you can buy. Here’s what makes them so expensive.

  • Stone crab claws are one of the most expensive seafoods you can buy.
  • A plate of four 7-ounce stone crab claws at a restaurant can cost you $140.
  • They’re partly pricey due to how they’re caught, which is can be exhaustive and sometimes dangerous.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Stone crab claws are one of the priciest seafoods you can buy. And depending on their size, a pound of claws at a restaurant can cost as much as $70. But catching these crabs is hard work. Strangely enough, fishers can only harvest the claws from the crabs, while the bodies must be returned to the ocean. So, what makes these claws so coveted? And why are they so expensive?

You can only fish for stone crab on the southeastern coast of the US, Cuba, the Bahamas, and Mexico. And it’s Florida where more stone crabs are caught than anywhere else. These crustaceans are markedly more expensive than other popular crabs. A pound of claws can cost two times the price of Alaskan snow crab legs. Part of what makes these crabs so costly is the labor-intensive process of catching them.

Ernie Piton: There’s a nice crab.

Narrator: Ernie Piton Jr. has been commercially fishing for stone crabs for over 40 years. With limited time to harvest each year, his crew must start their days early, sailing out before the sun rises. The process begins with dropping traps down to the ocean floor.

Kevin Henry: This is probably the funnest part, you know? You get to be a little more physical, you know what I mean? It’s a little bit of a rhythm thing going on here. It’s like dancing mariachi.

Narrator: But plucking these claws can be a dangerous process.

Bill Kelly: The claws on an adult crab can have as much as 9,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. With the enormous pressure that’s exerted, they could actually pop a finger off at the joint.

Kevin: These crabs, they have a mind of their own. You can easily get bit, you know, if you’re not careful. I’ve only been bit maybe, say, eight times in my career. Popped over a million claws in my day.

Narrator: The crew leaves the traps in the water for about two weeks before they’re pulled in by a rope. Then each one must be sorted thoroughly.

Kevin: We come back in a couple weeks, and then got a couple in the trap, we’re gonna pull them out. We’re gonna pop their claws and hope for a good day.

Narrator: Crews break off the claws quickly, so they don’t keep the crabs out of water for too long. But even if a trap is full of crabs, Kevin can’t necessarily take every claw. The state requires all harvested claws to be at least 2 7/8 inches long. Crabbers can legally break off both claws if they meet the required size.

Ernie: The ones that look smaller, we measure them on the gauge. Like that one.

Narrator: Crabs are one of few animals that can regenerate. When a crab loses a claw — or two — it can grow each one back in time. On average, claws can take up to three years to grow large enough to harvest again, which is why the state requires that crabbers pay close attention to each claw’s size. This ensures fishers don’t remove one prematurely. But despite the claws’ ability to regrow, some researchers have questioned the sustainability of this system.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission found that 46% to 82% of crabs died from the loss of two claws, while 23% to 59% died from the removal of one. That’s compared to just 12.8% of crabs that died when no claws were removed. Crabs can also only regrow a claw if the joint that linked it is left intact. Otherwise, it’ll bleed to death. This makes the way these claws are broken all the more important for preserving the fishery’s future.

Hiring enough people to make the operation run smoothly is another reason for the high price of these claws. And then there’s one other cost you’d never expect. Each trip requires 900 pounds of pig’s feet for bait. And that’s just about half of the total cost of fishing for the day.

Ernie: Normal running cost to go stone crabbing today is about $1,100 to leave the dock. Bait prices have gone up, fuel prices have gone up. You know, the track tag prices have gone up.

Narrator: After 10 hours on the boat, Ernie’s crew must boil and ice their catch as soon as they return, otherwise the claws won’t stay fresh. They finish the day by weighing each claw, which ultimately sets the final value. Claws are sold in four sizes. At Billy’s Stone Crab, restaurant prices range from $35 to $70 per pound.

Brian Hershey: We run about 4,000 pounds of stone crab through the restaurant each week. On a busy weekend, we sell 700 to 800 pounds of stone crab.

Narrator: The most expensive order costs $140. The plate is made up of four 7-ounce colossal claws, which yields just under 1 pound of crabmeat. Fresh-cooked claws sold on ice are less expensive, but even then, the mediums will cost you $29 per pound.

Years ago, stone crabs weren’t such valuable food. In the 1890s, they were nothing more than bycatch in spiny-lobster traps. Fishers began to keep the crabs that fell into those traps, and by the late 20th century, the stone crab fishery had become one of the most valuable industries in Florida. Today, it’s worth $30 million, and the prices of these claws aren’t likely to drop anytime soon.

Data from the FWC show the number of crabs caught each year has declined by 712,000 pounds. That’s since peak harvest in the late 1990s. Many commercial harvesters have also started fishing farther offshore, pointing to a lesser number of crabs in the area. The FWC says both of these changes signify a threat of overfishing, and prices have gone up in order to keep the fishery profitable.

To further protect the species’ future, the FWC instated even stricter regulations last year. Two changes include an increase in the minimum size of harvestable claws and cutting the fishing season short by two weeks. These limitations aren’t likely to lower the cost of stone crab claws. But the goal is to help preserve them and keep Florida fishers busy for years to come.

Kevin: One crab, I remember, my favorite crab I ever saw, it looked like a Louis Vuitton pattern. Bunch of diamonds. And it was just a pretty thing.

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What’s inside a blobfish, the ‘world’s ugliest animal’

  • The blobfish was crowned the world’s ugliest animal in 2013 — a title it still defends today.
  • But drop this fellow 9,200 feet below sea level, and the water holds up all that flab like a push-up bra, making the fish a little more handsome.
  • Between the skin and the muscles is a lot of fluid. And that’s the secret to the fish’s distinct appearance — and its survival.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: This creature was crowned the world’s ugliest animal in 2013, a title it still defends today. On land, he’s got a body like Jell-O and a big old frown. But drop this fellow 9,200 feet below sea level, and the water holds up all that flab like a push-up bra, making the fish a little more handsome. Same old fish, but with a little more support. So, what is all that water pressure holding together?

David Stein: Between the skin, that flabby skin, and the muscles is a lot of fluid.

Narrator: This is David Stein, a deep-sea-fish biologist who was lucky enough to dissect 19 blobfishes in the 1970s. Blobfish look blobby because they are full of water. Under their skin, blobfish have a thick layer of gelatinous flesh that floats outside their muscles.

Stein: If you pick up a blobfish by the tail, then it kind of flows to the head.

Narrator: This water-filled, Jell-O-like layer allows the blobfish to stay somewhat buoyant, which is important because blobfishes don’t have a swim bladder.

Stein: And fishes that have swim bladders are able to adjust their buoyancy. They can secrete gas into the swim bladder or remove it. A fish that lives on the bottom doesn’t need to be able to maintain its buoyancy.

Narrator: So, the Jell-O layer isn’t a perfect substitute, but the blobfish doesn’t need to be a strong swimmer. The predator has a highly specialized hunting strategy that’s perfect for the rocky barrens of the deep sea.

Stein: It just sits there and waits for dinner to come by.

Narrator: If all you do is sit, you don’t need much under your skin. Just watery tissue, some yellow pockets of fat, and a smidgen of muscle. In case you hadn’t guessed, blobfishes aren’t exactly yoked. They have very little red muscle, the kind that allows you, a human, to run a mile or a tuna fish to migrate across oceans. Instead, blobfish have a lot of white muscle, which allows them to swim in short bursts and lunge at prey that on occasion ramble by.

This is a baby blobfish. It’s a cleared and stained specimen, meaning all its tissue has been dissolved to show only the bones and cartilage. Those thin red lines you see, they’re the blobfish’s bones dyed red. If you’re having trouble seeing the bones, you’re not the only one. Blobfish have poorly ossified skeletons, meaning they’re thinner and more fragile than the bones of most shallow-water fish. This is another handy deep-sea adaptation, as it takes a lot of precious energy to build strong bones.

But the blobfish saves its energy to develop what might be the most important bone in its body: its jaws, which also happened to be the reason it looks so gloomy. The fish needs enormous jaws so it can snap up any prey that passes by and swallow it whole, maybe even smacking its blubbery lips as it eats. And that brings us to its stomach. If you’re the kind of creature that eats anything that swims by, some surprising things can wind up in your stomach. Stein found a wide range of foods and not-foods in the blobfish he dissected. Fish, sea pens, brittle stars, hermit crabs, an anemone, a plastic bag, and also lots of rocks.

Stein: Their stomach contents kind of bear out the fact that they’re probably not too bright.

Narrator: He also found octopus beaks, the cephalopods’ hard, indigestible jaws. This means that one of the world’s flabbiest fishes has been able to eat one of the sea’s most cunning predators. If you’re surprised, just think about the blobfish’s thick skin. What would it be harder to grab in a fight: a sack of bones or a sack of Jell-O? Stein suspects it might be the latter.

Stein: If the skin is loose, perhaps the suckers can’t really get a good grip on it.

Narrator: Stein found sucker marks across the blobfish’s body, a hint that the fish might’ve been in some deep-sea fights. So while all of this Jell-O might look a little unconventional, well, it seems to have served its purpose. The blobfish is perfectly suited to life in the deep sea, where beauty standards are probably quite different. After all…

Stein: Ugly is kind of in the eye of the beholder.

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