Marsden Fund Project 

Biodiversity highways and biogeographic origins: a voyage of discovery in the deep sea.

Core team: Te Papa
Dr Vincent Zintzen, contact person
Dr Clive Roberts
Andrew Stewart
Carl Struthers

Core team: Massey University, Albany, Auckland
Prof Marti Anderson
Oliver Hannaford (PhD student)


The final frontier of biological diversity lies in the deep ocean which harbours the most remote and poorly researched ecosystems of our planet. The fish section of Te Papa Tongarewa will make fundamental biological discoveries by collecting and describing new, rare and bizarre fish species from the deep ocean along New Zealand coasts and offshore seamount chains using up-to-date underwater stereo video techniques and baited fish traps.

This research will illuminate the biogeographical origins of New Zealand's fish fauna. Biogeographical analyses will examine historical and present-day geographic connectivities and the dispersal of fish species through time and which has strongly influenced the origins and diversity of New Zealand's marine fish fauna.

Quantitative ecological analyses of the fish fauna will examine the potential interaction between depth and latitude, testing fundamental hypotheses about patterns of deep-sea biodiversity and gradients in species richness, taxonomic diversity, and community structure. Specifically, we aim to answer the question: At what depth do latitudinal effects, if any, disappear?

These questions will be answered through:

  • the compilation of a global Australasian database on museum fish records;
  • a pioneer sampling programme with Baited fish traps and Baited Remote Stereo Underwater Video Systems (BRUVS), an emerging methodology that allows accurate length information to be collected, along with relative abundances of individual benthic fish species.

Knowledge of the fish fauna at these depths and habitats is still fragmentary. Basic taxonomic knowledge of our fishes is surprisingly poor, even among some of our common and commercial species. Large areas of the EEZ remain very poorly sampled, especially deep-sea fishes living at depths below 1000 m (over 50% of the EEZ, representing 2 million km², is 2000m deep or more). Other locations in our EEZ requiring survey include most remote offshore island groups (e.g. Kermadec Islands, Subantarctic Islands); and several extensive oceanic submarine ridges (e.g. Norfolk Ridge, Three Kings Ridge, Kermadec Ridge, Macquarie Ridge). Intensive exploratory surveys are needed at all depths in these areas, and representative samples must be documented and preserved in accessible collections. Accurate descriptions of species from these areas (including those new to New Zealand and to science) are urgently required.

The four central goals of the research programme are:

  1. To make fundamental biological discoveries, by collecting and describing new fish species from the deep ocean.
  2. To illuminate the biogeographical origins of NZ’s fish fauna, by comparing and contrasting communities and individual species’ distributions to reveal historical and present-day biogeographic connectivities or dis-junctures.
  3. To explore and quantify the interaction between depth and latitude gradients in benthic and demersal fish biodiversity, especially characterising depth gradients in richness, evenness, beta diversity and community structure. Specifically, we aim to answer the question: At what depth do latitudinal effects, if any, disappear?
  4.  Produce high quality video footage from the deep-sea that can be used in the future to support Te Papa exhibitions on the deep underwater fauna of New Zealand.

Te Papa fish collection

The fieldwork carried out under this project will generate the collection of a suite of fishes not previously sampled that will underpin new knowledge of SW Pacific deep-sea fish diversity, including new genera and species.

See Te Papa's fish collection online

Public awareness

Our knowledge of the deep-sea fish fauna will greatly increase by the collection of new specimens of the New Zealand fauna. The deep-sea environment has always fascinated the public and for good reasons. Extraordinary and rarely seen life forms will be observed on video footage. They will offer an excellent support for future Te Papa exhibitions, currently being developed.

Scientific publications in international peer-reviewed journals

Making discoveries available to the scientific community is an essential mission of Te Papa research. An emphasis will be put on the use of Museum records and up-to-date statistical analysis, notably using a range of recently developed taxonomic indexes. These biodiversity measures (unlike species richness) have some very interesting properties that offer some guardrail against taxonomic mistakes that could still be buried inside the Museum records.