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4th Cruise Diary: Seeking the unknown benthic fauna of the North-West Africa

Since the visit of the 'Challenger' in 1878, many research vessels have explored the coasts of northwest Africa and collected fish and invertebrates from its depths. To the mythical expeditions with the 'Travailleur' and 'Talisman', the 'Valdivia', the 'Princesse Alice I', 'Hirondelle II ', the' Michael Sars' or 'Discovery', we can add others, such as the'Atlantide ' the' Calypso ', the Dutch surveys' CANCAP 'or the 'French expedition' Balgim-84, that more recently have traveled the coasts of the Gulf of Guinea, the Canary Islands and Cape Verde, seeking further knowledge on the fauna of the region.

To these efforts, we must include those carried out by the different research institutes in the region, especially IFAN and ORSTOM,and under the direction of well known researchers such as Cadenat, Marche-Marchal, Roux, Sourie, which have over several decades undertaken surveys more limited to their work area using small oceanographic ships, especially in Senegal and Cape Verde.

Although these works have led to obtain important collections and inventories of both fish and invertebrates, we find that the northwest African fauna is among the most unknown of the world oceans, and except for the research carried out by the Spanish vessel 'Vizconde de Eza’ in Morocco, Mauritania and Guinea Bissau, no large-scale research on biodiversity has recently been made in the region.

The studies that are currently carried out by the Norwegian research vessel ‘Dr. Fridtjof Nansen’ will allow, for the first time, to get a comprehensive view of the invertebrates inhabiting the bottoms of the CCLME plateau region, as well as the biodiversity and species distribution of the benthic communities.

Two specialists from the Spanish Institute of Oceanography and the University of Vigo, Ana Soto and Susana Ramos (project coordinators), together with two young benthos researchers from the region, Ammadou Ould Barry (from CERESCOR, Guinea Conakry), and Sidi Mohamed (from IMROP, Mauritania), make up the team that during the first month of the survey has been responsible for the collection, identification and preservation of marine invertebrates.

The work is exhausting because trawls are coming up continuously, day and night, and we must get as much information as possible, not letting any benthic specimen escape!

After the arrival of the trawl sampling begins! All the invertebrates, including the smallest ones, are separated from the fish, and the number of individuals of each species are counted and weighted, all animals are then photographed in groups and individually, to keep both their fresh colors and details, which helps in keeping a complete inventory of everything found. After that a lot of work still wait for us: small and large animals are placed in bottles with alcohol -each one gets an unique identification code together with information related to which collection it belongs to: reference collections for the different institutions of the participant countries as well as for the different Spanish research institutions coordinating the study.

The collections are built parallel and include groups as crustaceans, cephalopods, starfish, sponges, corals, fish.... all kept for further analysis on land! If we still have some spare time, we try to identify the specimens under the microscope to give them its proper scientific name. But this is not the end of the work! The data, for each species, is electronically recorded in a file called 'faunal list' as well as in a file to keep track of the collections. In addition, we are preparing a guide which will help our colleagues, Fran Ramil, Eva Garcia and Lariza ... who will substitute us during the second phase of the survey.

But despite the fatigue, the passion for the discoveries and the love for science keep us happy and active all day. We just hope that in the near future and after years of collaboration and study of the benthic marine fauna of the north-western Africa, it becomes the best studied of the world!