Photo of a scaly-foot snail, known as the sea pangolin, which is the first species at risk of extinction due to potential deep sea mining by humans, researchers have discovered.

Snails are first species at risk of extinction from deep-sea mining, scientists warn

Image credit: Queen's University Belfast/PA Wire

Scientists from Queen’s University Belfast say they have identified snails living in the Indian Ocean as the first species at risk of extinction due to potential deep-sea mining by humans.

The scaly-foot snail, which is also known as the sea pangolin, has been listed as endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Over the past three years, the Queen’s team has been contributing to the first official Red List assessments of animals living in hydrothermal vents on ridges deep in the Indian Ocean, with the species of snail being identified as being at risk from the human activity.

Dr Julia Sigwart, senior lecturer in marine biology and associate director at the university's Marine Laboratory, said: “The deep sea is home to thousands of species and new species are being discovered all the time.

“These deep-sea marine animals like the scaly-foot snail are out of sight, out of mind, but they are still threatened by human activities.”

In a letter published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, the scientists warn against this “out of sight, out of mind” approach to species that live on deep-sea hydrothermal vents, which were only discovered 40 years ago.

The scaly-foot snail can be found at three sites some 2,400m to 2,900m down in the ocean in a total area roughly equivalent to two football pitchess.

According to the researchers, an assessment under the Red List of species found on such deep-sea vents would help protect them from the surging interest in seafloor ocean mining.

The deep sea has large supplies of nickel, cobalt and rare earth metals, important for products such as electric car batteries, smartphones and other technology. However, the researchers warn that efforts to begin mining the seafloor for these earth metals are targeting the same areas that are home to some of the world’s rarest, strangest and most vulnerable animals.

“It is crucial we are aware of the immediacy and potential impacts of deep-sea mining,” Sigwart added. “This Red List designation for these species will enable appropriate international protection for the most vulnerable of creatures.”

In April this year, researchers from Newcastle University developed cheap acoustic tags that can be attached to fishing gear in order to reduce the prevalence of wildlife-harming ‘ghost nets’.

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