Nursery of Mermaid’s Purses

January 1, 2024
By Tara Haelle

SATS print 224_360 px width.png

A deep-sea skate observed near a hydrothermal vent. Adults can reach five feet in length. Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program

When researchers went exploring an ancient underwater volcano about a mile below the surface off Canada’s Pacific coast, they expected to find an extinct volcano in icy waters. Instead, they discovered that the volcano, rising more than a half mile from the ocean floor, is active—and in fact, the warm water it spews into the sea creates a utopia for the larger of two known nurseries of Pacific white skate eggs in the world. Scientists only recently learned that these skates, a relative of sharks and the second deepest dwelling skate in the world, live in these waters.

But during their expedition to the seamount, the researchers’ video captured a Pacific white skate gliding through a garden of deep-sea corals and laying eggs. A closer look revealed that the seamount was covered in thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of large skate eggs. Until this discovery, the only other Pacific white skate nursery known to scientists was in the Galapagos Islands, also in the toasty waters of a volcano’s hydrothermal vents. But there, only a couple dozen eggs were observed.

The thousands of pouch-like eggs off Canada’s coast are about ten inches across, giving them the nickname “mermaid’s purses”, since they look like they could be handbags for the mythical creatures. It can take about four years for baby skates to develop in the cold, deep sea, but biologists suspect the warmth from the volcanic vent—about 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit above the surrounding water—speeds up the eggs’ incubation and increases the likelihood that more young skates will survive and eventually reach adulthood. The surrounding corals further protect the eggs, but the area is not protected by any human conservation, so scientists will continue monitoring it.