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It covers at least 150 square miles – and includes about 60 million active icefish nests.

The world's largest breeding colony of fish has been discovered in Antarctica.

it suggests the notothenioids, these fish play an important role in the wider food web, say experts from the alfred wegener institute in bremerhaven, germany.

they used an underwater camera 'sledge' called ocean floor observation and bathymetry system.

Last February the German team surveyed the Filchner ice shelf – a vast slab that has floated off the land onto the sea.

Their bodily fluids contain antifreeze proteins that enable them to survive the very cold temperatures of the Southern Ocean.

As a result, blood is less thick and sticky- increasing supply of oxygen to organs.

The discovery will play an important role in the conservation of Antarctica and surrounding oceans, the researchers claim, adding that they plan to return to the area later this year to survey more of the ocean floor for signs of nests

Lead author Dr Autun Purser said :' A great many seals spend much of their time in close proximity to the fish nests.

"we know this from historical tracking data and fresh tracking data from our cruise.

the nests are exactly where the warmer water is upwelling.

"These facts may be coincidence, and more work is needed, but the recorded seal data show seals do indeed dive to the depths of the fish nests, so may well be dining on these fish."

The team used an underwater camera 'sledge' called Ocean Floor Observation and Bathymetry System (OFOBS) in the southern Weddell Sea, Antarctica

' a few dozen nests have been observed elsewhere in the antarctic- but this find is orders of magnitude larger. '

The researchers used an underwater camera 'sledge ', OFOBS, which is a large, towed device, weighing one ton and towed behind the icebreaker RV Polarstern.

'We tow this at a height of about 1.5 to 2.5 metres above the seafloor, recording videos and acoustic bathymetry data. '

Live images were transmitted from 1,755ft to 1,377ft down to monitors aboard the research ship, and the longer the mission lasted, the more excitement grew.

A massive icefish breeding colony, covering almost 100 square miles, has been discovered in Antarctica's Weddell Sea, with about 60 million active nests

Nest followed nest.

Precise evaluations identified an average one breeding site per three square metres – with up to two per square metre.

Mapping suggested it extended across a region roughly equivalent to an island the size of Malta.

Dr Purser said : 'The idea such a huge breeding area of icefish in the Weddell Sea was previously undiscovered is totally fascinating. '

The RV Polarstern in the Wendall Sea, Antarctica. (Credits: AWI – Tim Kavelage / SWNS)

The Polarstern icebreaker has been exploring it for four decades.

Only individual Neopagetopsis ionah fish or small clusters of nests had ever been detected.

he added : "after the spectacular discovery of the many fish nests, we thought about a strategy on board to find out how large the breeding area was- there was literally no end in sight.

'the nests are three quarters of a metre in diameter- so they are much larger than the structures and creatures, some of which are only centimetres in size, that we normally detect with the ofobs system.

The unprecedented population represents a biomass of more than 60,000 tons – or over 135 million lbs. (Credits: AWI OFOBS Team / SWNS)

'So, we were able to increase the height above ground to about three metres and the towing speed to a maximum of three knots, thus multiplying the area investigated.

'we covered an area of 45,600 square metres and counted an incredible 16,160 fish nests on the photo and video footage. '

There were also unused nests, in the vicinity of which either only a fish without eggs could be seen, or a dead fish.

They stood out from the otherwise muddy seabed due to a circular central area of small stones.

Nest followed nest, the team said. Precise evaluations identified an average one breeding site per 33 square foot - with up to two per 10 square feet

Several types were distinguished.

Some were 'active' with between 1,500 and 2,500 eggs and guarded in three-quarters of cases by an adult icefish of the species Neopagetopsis ionah.

Others contained only eggs.

the researchers used ofobs's longer-range but lower-resolution side scan sonars- which recorded over 100,000 nests- to work out distribution and density.

Nests of icefish discovered in Antarctica. (Credits: AWI OFOBS Team / SWNS)

They were a popular destination for seals in search of food.

transmitters attached to the marine mammals showed 90 per cent of diving activities occurred there.

It's likely to be the most spatially extensive contiguous fish breeding colony discovered worldwide to date.

Bettina Stark-Watzinger, German Federal Research Minister, congratulated the researchers on their discovery, saying it makes an important contribution towards protecting the Antarctic environment.

the findings were published in current biology.

They knew the area included an upwelling 2C warmer than surrounding bottom waters.

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