What job can beat that!

16 December 2010 | News story

The oceans are the largest ecosystem on Earth: on average, they are more than 3,400 m deep and cover over 70% of our planet. But although scientists have been studying them for a long time, much of marine biodiversity remains a mystery. Unveiling the secrets of the deep is Dr Alex Rogers’ speciality.

Dr Alex Rogers is Professor of Conservation Biology at the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford and Chair of IUCN’s Marine Invertebrate Red List Authority. His research focuses on the ecology, evolution and conservation of marine ecosystems, especially those of the deep sea. He is particularly interested in seamounts, cold-water corals, and the Antarctic. His passion for oceans developed in his early childhood: as a 12-year old boy, Alex knew he would spend his life exploring the seas:

”My grandfather and uncles were fishermen on the west coast of Ireland. Every summer, as a child I went over there and spent time on their boats watching the fascinating animals coming up in the lobster pots. I also spent many hours "rock-pooling", that is exploring the small pools of water that are left between rocks on a beach after a wave flows back into the sea. This gave me my love of the ocean and the creatures in it and at the age of 12 I decided to become a marine biologist. I did a degree and Ph.D. in marine biology at the University of Liverpool, learnt to dive and spent some happy times on the Isle of Man at Port Erin Marine Laboratory. From there I went to the Marine Biological Association at Plymouth and it was there that I got interested in deep-sea biology”.

The subject of Alex’s PhD thesis was particularly interesting, even if not particularly appetizing: it focused on the ribbon worms – including one of the longest creatures on the planet, that can reach up to 50 metres!

His current work involves expeditions on research vessels to study deep-sea ecosystems and collect biological samples for the identification and description of new species. He also works on policy related to the conservation of marine ecosystems and is interested in ocean governance and the regulation of fisheries, especially on the high seas. Faced with this ocean of interests and activities, what are the biggest challenges that he faces in his work?

"Well, not enough time in the day! There is so much work to do on exploring the oceans and in conservation of marine species and ecosystems that I am always rushed off my feet. I hate saying “no” to projects which are often extremely important as we are at a critical time where human impacts on marine ecosystems are reaching the point of no return. Getting funding for our exploration of the deep ocean can be particularly challenging as well. A research ship with an underwater robot can cost more than £25,000 a day - that is expensive research!"

Recently, Alex took part in cruises to the Southwest Indian Ocean Ridge and the Southern Ocean, working to unveil the mysteries of the region’s seamounts - underwater mountains of volcanic and tectonic origin, which are known to be hotpots of biodiversity.

"That was an incredible experience. We saw how seamounts interact with the ocean’s ecosystem. Using acoustics we could see shoals of seamount resident predators attacking layers of migrating zooplankton and small swimming animals. It was fabulous. In the Southern Ocean we discovered completely new hydrothermal vent ecosystems complete with many new animals. Some of the underwater landscapes were so strange we could not understand whether we were looking at mineral deposits or vast colonies of bacteria - it was amazing! On both of these trips we were accompanied by seabirds such as albatrosses and petrels and we also saw many whales, especially in the Southern Ocean. What job can beat that!!"

An analysis of the 7,000 samples gathered in the southern Indian Ocean resulted in the discovery of a new species – that of a large squid.

"At the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity we gathered a team of taxonomists - experts in identifying animals. As we progressed through the samples we discovered a startling diversity of deep-water life. These included lantern fish, deep-sea angler fish and squid. Remarkably, on a single cruise we had sampled about a fifth of all the world’s squid species! However, amongst the known species, which included fabulous animals such as the vampire squid, our squid taxonomist, dr Vladimir Lapitovsky, found a large dark red squid which was completely unfamiliar to him. It turned out to be a new species of squid which uses light organs to lure in prey. It was quite unlike other species of squid and we’re waiting to find out whether it is a new genus or even family of deep ocean squid. These animals are highly mobile and hard to catch – which probably explains why it has never been seen."

Alex has published more than 50 papers on marine biology as well as a book on marine animals and plants of Britain and numerous reports on aspects of marine biodiversity and human impacts on the oceans.

Alex can be contacted at: alex.rogers@zoo.ox.ac.uk