Scientists on a roll naming new species from the abyss

How one voyage is boosting the list of ocean life on the planet and giving names to new creatures from the deep.

Have you ever stared into deep ocean waters on a sunny day and wondered what lives down there in the dark abyss beyond the reach of light? If you could descend the depths to walk the seafloor far below, what creatures might swim, scuttle and slither from your path?

Remember faceless fish? It now has some newly named friends. And doesn’t it look surprised!

That question led Dr Tim O'Hara from Museums Victoria and an international team of 40 scientists to set sail in 2017 on our Research Vessel (RV) Investigator for the month-long ‘Sampling the Abyss’ voyage. What they discovered – from abyssal depths down to 4800 metres – ticked every box: weird, cute, unbelievable, and, some might say, disgusting! They found giant bioluminescent sea spiders, discovered fish without faces, and watched herds of sea-pigs marching across the ocean’s abyssal plains.

Abyss life spun the evolutionary wheel and it landed on bonkers!

Scientists also found many hundreds of species new to science during the voyage. From more than 800 species collected, around 400 of the invertebrates (affectionately called ‘seafloor bugs’) are thought to be new species. Coming from the abyss, these new species are also likely new to human eyes.

So far, scientists have completed the process of describing and naming about 10 percent - about forty or so - of these new species.

Ever wanted to change your name?

How would you feel about being called a ‘bone eating snot flower’? Pretty rude, eh? Then spare a thought for the unflattering name given to Osedax mucofloris, a species of polychaete ‘zombie worm’ named in 2005.

Sampling the Abyss voyage Chief Scientist Dr Tim O'Hara, from Museums Victoria, now has a worm from the abyss named after him. Congrats Tim! Photo: Matt Newton

Luckily for our deep-sea finds, scientists are being somewhat kinder when naming the new species they discovered during Sampling the Abyss. There are a range of conventions used when naming new species, including naming them:

  • after the location or place in which they were found
  • to reflect a distinctive feature or characteristic of the organism
  • to honour significant people
  • to recognise those involved in the discovery.

When constructing a unique name for a new species, scientists may draw inspiration from the names of people, institutions, objects or, in the case of deep-sea discoveries, the research vessel involved.

Our latest list of newly minted monikers includes abyssal bristle worms named after CSIRO (Gesaia csiro), RV Investigator (Petta investigatoris) and voyage Chief Scientist, Dr Tim O'Hara (Phalacrostemma timoharai), an anemone named after the snake-headed 'gorgon' of Greek myth (Epizoanthus gorgonus), and carnivorous sponges named for significant people including the Dutch artist MC Escher (Abyssocladia escheri).

Hot off the research publications press, let's meet our new species and dive into how they got their names.

New creatures from the abyss

Meet the latest abyssal additions from the Sampling the Abyss voyage and find out how they got their names (click on each image)

Finding a polychaete-needle in a haystack (4000m beneath the ocean surface)

To find these new species, scientists used the advanced multi-beam sonar systems on RV Investigator to first map the seafloor far below. Using these maps, they then used cameras, nets and sleds to sample seafloor habitats up to 4800 metres below the ocean surface.

In the deepest parts of the ocean it took nearly half a day to lower and raise this equipment from the seafloor.

These operations collected more than 42,000 specimens from the deep. These specimens will likely offer new discoveries for decades to come.

Biodiscovery matters

Biodiversity plays a vital role in maintaining the functionality and productivity of ecosystems. High biodiversity also makes habitats more resilient to environmental change.

About 400 of the species collected during the 2017 Sampling the Abyss voyage are believed new to science. Of these new species, about 40 have been described and named so far. Photo: Asher Flatt.

Like a jigsaw, even small pieces are important to the bigger picture.

Biodiversity surveys, like the 2017 Sampling the Abyss voyage, support effective marine management and conservation, including by identifying biodiversity contained in marine parks. This voyage collected species within seven of the 58 offshore Australian Marine Parks managed by Parks Australia.

Across the globe, Marine Protected Areas (MPA) are essential to conserve the biodiversity of the oceans and to maintain productivity, especially of fish stocks. While approximately 12% of the Earth’s land area is protected in reserves, only about 1% of the world’s marine environments are protected. 

Today, 60% of the world’s major marine ecosystems that support livelihoods have been degraded or are being used unsustainably. Scientists estimate that, unless we make significant changes, more than half of the world’s marine species could hover on the brink of extinction by the year 2100.

Our deep-sea scientists are working hard to gather data to help prevent that.

Deep-sea scientists are going troppo

Australia’s marine estate is vast and many gaps remain in our knowledge of the deep ocean. In particular, we have little to no information about the deep-sea life off Australia’s west coast and around all Australia’s remote offshore islands.

Scientists will wash off their gear for another voyage in 2021 when they head off to study deep ocean life around the remote Cocos-Keeling and Christmas Islands. Photo: Asher Flatt.

Far offshore is where Dr Tim O’Hara and his intrepid team of scientists are heading next. Due to depart in mid-2021, they’ll be departing on another world-first survey using our RV Investigator. This time they’ll study the deep-sea life around the Cocos-Keeling and Christmas Islands.

The biological communities around these remote rocky specks in the Indian Ocean are almost completely unknown and potentially harbour many unique species that will be new to science.

The data to be collected on this voyage will not only fill a major gap in biodiversity datasets but also directly contribute to Australia’s international obligations to understand the marine environment around claimed offshore territories.

Find new species with us

Stay tuned! No doubt the 2021 voyage will see many more weird and wonderful species added to the roll call of marine life on the planet.

Follow all the RV Investigator research action – including the 24/7 ship livestream – right here on

About Sampling the Abyss

Life moves pretty slowly in the abyss. But if you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss a swimming Peniagone holothurian.

Led by Dr Tim O’Hara from Museums Victoria , ‘Sampling the Abyss’ was a month-long voyage on RV Investigator in 2017. It brought together 40 scientists from Museums Victoria, CSIRO, Australian Museum , Queensland Museum and other Australian and international museums and research agencies for a world-first study of life in the abyss along the east coast of Australia.

The voyage was supported with funding from the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program .

Visit the Sampling the Abyss voyage page for more information about the voyage and its discoveries, including a list of research publications from the voyage.