Rescued fossil makes remarkable discovery

Written by By Staff Writer, Adam Beaumont, CNN

In a landmark breakthrough, a US Navy warship has recovered valuable materials from a 30,000-year-old sponge-like fossil found by accident deep under the sea.

The acoustic survey of the fossil — which is about the size of a tennis ball — has been described as a “once in a lifetime event” in a new study about the high-resolution CT scan of the “narco clam,” which was brought back on board USS Florida last month.

The actual finding was made by jettisoning a robot named Caveador.

It was running its course beneath a canyon in the Chagos Archipelago, an uninhabited British Indian Ocean Territory.

There were other smaller discoveries — including tiny marine creatures that are the end products of “hunter-killer” waves — in the jungle-like layer, known as a portal.

A rocky fragment from a fossil of a narco clam is held by Capt. John Bagnall, commanding officer of USS Florida. Credit: U.S. Navy

Back on dry land, John Bagnall, the commanding officer of USS Florida, had calculated the costs of a search and rescue mission to save the rare find. He proposed sending it into the depths to be scanned by Deep-2. Deep-2 is a robotic and seismic-sampling machine that represents an advancement in underwater imaging.

“We have a very intimate and trusting relationship with Deep-2,” said Bagnall. “The moment we decided to move forward with Deep-2 and use the recent acquisition of the Narco Chaucer to support us, we decided to sink our own submarine into the Seamount that was in question.”

A deep sea cable was towed out to the reservoir where the Narco clam was located. Credit: U.S. Navy

Deep-2 explored the area of the portal and discovered a porcupine-shaped crustacean-like fossil called an argosaur, said Erik van Sebille, a palaeontologist with the National Marine Mammal Laboratory who studied the finds.

While another piece was shown in good condition by the researchers, Bagnall said it was likely “not fully recovered.”

In a recent article, van Sebille said: “Rare finds like the Narco Chaucer are the rare exception and not the rule in the abyssal ocean. Until now, little was known about these fascinating creatures, which are not ancient, but modern.

“The addition of the Argosaur and other new species discovered in the portal means that some of the animals represented may exist today and may come from the same algae-packed environments that these ancient creatures once encountered.”

‘Very strange and beautiful’

The Narco Chaucer was first uncovered in June 2017 during work to keep the atoll of Diego Garcia at least 20 meters above sea level, an environmental protection zone that is home to the only inhabited atoll in the Indian Ocean, and is the largest volcanic archipelago in the world.

The 21-meter (74-foot) long Narco Chaucer was excavated, restored and sent to the coastal museum at Diego Garcia for study in May 2018. Credit: U.S. Navy

Bagnall said the actual finding was made by jettisoning a robot named Caveador and that he was overjoyed by the survey.

He told CNN that some materials were positive indicators that the fossils are genuine. Others, such as the argosaur, were lost.

“We never knew exactly what we were in store for with the Narco Chaucer,” he said. “I’m still a little excited just looking at it.

“How can I say ‘thank you’? It’s a once in a lifetime event. You see something and you see things that are so strange and beautiful it’s unbelievable.

“I’m glad that we’re able to see this stuff.”

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