A certain species of sea snake that was thought to be extinct at Ashmore Reef off Australia has been rediscovered in deeper waters.
For the last 23 years, the short-nosed sea snake was had not been seen at Ashmore Reef, but now this lost species has been found by researchers during a deep-sea expedition, 67 meters (220 feet) below the ocean surface in the “twilight zone.”
The discovery was made last week by a team led by Dr. Karen Miller from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, with scientists from the Western Australian Museum, Curtin University and University of Western Australia.
The researchers are on board the Schmidt Ocean Institute research vessel R/V Falkor – a ship equipped with advanced robotic technologies – and are exploring the depths of the mesophotic coral reef ecosystem at Ashmore Reef.
Miller said the critically endangered short-nosed sea snake (Aipysurus apraefrontalis) had not been sighted at Ashmore Reef since 1998, and marks the discovery as a “second chance” to understand and protect this species:
“The short-nosed sea snake was thought to be lost forever from Ashmore – so it truly is a remarkable find, the whole ship of researchers was squealing in excitement. We can’t protect species we don’t know are there – this is why this expedition is so important, we’re at depths no-one has explored before, gaining critical knowledge as we uncover Ashmore’s deep-sea secrets.
“We suspect the mesophotic coral ecosystem could have significant ecological importance and very well serve as a refuge for species lost from shallow waters, such as sea snakes.”
The short-nosed sea snake is one of four sea snake species discovered during the deep-sea expedition, leaving 13 species still lost from Ashmore Reef’s once thriving sea snake assemblage.
Dr. Nerida Wilson from the Western Australian Museum, who is also on board the R/V Falkor, said Ashmore Reef, off Western Australia’s north coast, was once the most biodiverse global hotspot for sea snakes:
“Over a period of decades, sea snakes have mysteriously disappeared from the shallow waters of Ashmore Reef. This discovery shows that we have so much more to learn about the twilight zone, and we are hopeful to find more of Ashmore’s lost sea snake species.”
(Image credit: Credit: Conor Ashleigh/Schmidt Ocean Institute)