Researchers Find New Species At World’s Hottest, Deepest Ocean Vents
New research from an intrepid team of British oceanographers reveals that the world’s deepest submarine volcanic vents are also the hottest that scientists have yet discovered. Moreover, they appear to be teeming with a variety of previously unknown life forms.
According to measurements made in a recent expedition, the mineral-rich water streaming out of volcanic jets at the bottom of the Cayman Trough reaches temperatures exceeding 840 degrees Fahrenheit. Located over 3 miles below the pristine surface of the Caribbean waters, these aquatic infernos are hot enough to melt solid lead.
And yet in a testimony to the tenacity and resourcefulness of life, the researchers say the waters around the vents surge with never-before-seen species of animals and bacteria. One of these includes a newly discovered species of albino shrimp that appears to have an organ on its back for detecting light.
The researchers from England’s National Oceanography Centre in Southampton published their findings this week in the science journal Nature Communications.
Research on the large vents—known as “black smokers” due to the cloudy, dark mixtures of waters and minerals that they emit—first began in April 2010. One of these vents, the so-called Beebe Vent Field, was discovered over half a mile deeper than any previously known vent.
One of the expedition’s leaders, Dr. Jon Copley of the University of Southampton, described the team’s discovery of the vent as a moment full of awe and wonder.
“When we came across the black smokers on the sea floor there were honestly tears among the science party, there was this sort of moment of overwhelming wonder at the marvel of the world,” Copley told Matt McGrath of BBC News.
“The Beebe Field is a mound of mineral rubble on the bottom of the ocean estimated to be about 80m across about 50m high. On top of the mound are naturally formed chimneys, estimated to be about six meters tall with hot fluid gushing out.”
Copley explained that the mineral-rich mixture contains particularly large amounts of copper, which immediately reacts with the cold sea water to form the large chimney-like structures surrounding the vents.
As current instruments do not allow direct measurement of the water’s temperature as it gushes out of the thermal vents, the team was able to arrive at the approximate temperature indirectly by analyzing the chemical reactions taking place around the vents.
Another find of potentially even greater significance was discovered in a shallower vent field in the side of a deep-sea mountain known as Mount Dent. Here the team discovered a number of black smokers on the mountain that were a significant distance from the volcanic zone on the ocean floor where vents typically form.
“Finding black smoker vents on Mount Dent was a complete surprise,” said the team’s geochemist Doug Connelly in a press release. “Hot and acidic vents have never been seen in an area like this before.”
Yet the researchers suspect that such mountain vents may be more than just a rare anomaly.
“The kind of underwater area where we found the second set of vents, we think is actually quite common around the world’s oceans and so if you can get vents on mountains like that it could be that there are a lot of them out there dotted around,” Copley told BBC.
Dr. Nicole Dubilier of Germany’s renowned Max Planck Institute of Marine Microbiology couldn’t agree more with Dr. Copley’s assessment.
“I am convinced that deep sea vents are very common and this is only the beginning of a hopefully long line of future discoveries,” Dubilier told BBC.
“That we now have the technology to explore and sample such exotic environments is exciting in itself, comparable to the fact that we can collect rocks from the moon or may one day be able to collect them from Mars,” she added.
And as every student of science knows, exotic new environments tend to yield exotic new forms of life.
The team’s submarine cameras captured footage of an eerily pale new crustacean that the scientists are calling Rimicaris hybisae.
The tiny shrimp, while lacking true eyes, appears to have evolved a highly specialized light-sensing organ located on its back. While waters at these depths are typically pitch black, the molten-hot sea vents produce a faint glow in the alien-like aquatic landscape, and the shrimps tiny photo-sensitive organ appears to allow it to navigate its dimly lit environment.
A related species, Rimicaris exoculata, has been found living at the edge of another deep-sea vent 4,000 kilometers away on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
“Studying creatures at these vents, and comparing them with species at other vents around the world, will help us to understand how animals disperse and evolve in the deep ocean,” Copley said. A Rimicaris exoculata, a close cousin of the newly discovered albino shrimp, was previously discovered nearly 3,000 miles away on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
The research team reported that the vents on the side of Mount Dent were also populated with an array of previously unknown sea creatures, including snake-like fish, marine snails and a flea-like crustacean called an amphipod.
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