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Creatures of the deep surface at new exhibition

By Matthew Knight, for CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • New exhibition explores how sea life survive in the depths of deepest seas
  • "The Deep" includes real life specimens including fangtooth fish, whale carcass
  • Inhospitable ocean depths up to 11,000 meters are home to extraordinary biodiversity
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London, England (CNN) -- Less explored than the surface of the moon, the deepest depths of our planet's oceans are host to some of the most bizarre-looking creatures on Earth.

"The Deep," a new exhibition at London's Natural History Museum, has brought some of these to the surface showcasing the extraordinary diversity of life that lurks up to 11,000 meters -- nearly seven miles -- beneath the waves.

Giants like the Japanese spider crab with legs which span four meters share the depths with small creatures such as the "stoplight loosejaw" -- a fish with binocular-like vision -- which not only dislocates its head in order to catch its prey but is also capable of emitting a red and blue-green light.

Alex Gaffikin, exhibition developer at the Natural History Museum (NHM) told CNN: "It's International Year of Biodiversity and we wanted an exhibition that would highlight some aspect of this."

At the center of the exhibition sits a real sperm whale skeleton, never displayed before. The display tells the story of how other sea life benefit from its demise -- in some cases for up to 50 years after -- as it falls to the sea bed.

Gaffikin says it takes about two hours for a whale carcass to sink to the ocean floor. On the way down its flesh is feasted on by sharks and scavengers like the hagfish.

Once all the meat has been stripped away, even the bones provide food for a creature called the "bone-eating snot flower worm" (Osedax mucofloris). This tiny, two millimeter-long worm feeds on the oil in whale bones years after the whale's death.

The deepest sections of oceans, like the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, are bleak, freezing cold and pitch black. And with pressures up to 1,000 times greater than those on land, it's astonishing that life thrives in such an inhospitable climate.

But, as this exhibition displays, it does.

Whether it is jellyfish which measure 30 meters in diameter -- the deep ocean's most successful predator, according to the exhibition -- or fish like the "orange roughy" which can live 150 years, the deep oceans are biodiversity havens.

One of the strangest and scariest fish on display at the exhibition is the fangtooth (Anoplogaster cornuta). It's an active and fierce predator, says James Maclaine, fish curator at the NHM, which swims to depths of around 2,000 meters and feeds mostly on crustaceans.

"The deep oceans are part of the wider eco-system and it is under threat from climate change, acidification and pollution," Gaffikin said.

In addition to the weird and wonderful exhibits, the NHM have laid on a range of activities which allow visitors to take part in conservation efforts.

"As part of the exhibition, we talk about how businesses can join in with marine conservation or take part in an event called 'the big seaweed search,'" Gaffikin said.

"The Deep" includes real-life specimens, interactive displays and is open until September.