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Into the underworld: New ecosystem found beneath hot smokers

Vulcanoctopus, mussels and tubeworms near Tica Vent
Vulcanoctopus, mussels and tubeworms near Tica Vent

Scientists have been studying hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean for the past 46 years – but, beyond microbes in the sediment, they had never before looked for life beneath these volcanic hot springs.

Also read: Octopus Garden is a deep-sea egg accelerator

Now an international science team has peered into volcanic cavities beneath the “hot smokers” to discover a previously unsuspected ecosystem.

The breakthrough came during a month-long expedition led by Dr Monika Bright of the University of Vienna on the East Pacific Rise off Panama. They were using Schmidt Ocean Institute (SOI)’s research vessel Falkor and its deep ROV SuBastian, working to depths of around 2.5km.

Eelpout swims past a tower of tubeworms at Tica Vent (SOI)
Eelpout swims past a tower of tubeworms at Tica Vent (SOI)
Dr Monika Bright and Andre Luiz de Oliveira in the control-room (SOI)
Dr Monika Bright and Andre Luiz de Oliveira of the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Falkor’s control-room (SOI)

The team, which included scientists from the USA, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Costa Rica and Slovenia, used the ROV to overturn chunks of volcanic crust at the site. Living in the 25°C water beneath the crust they found cave systems “teeming” with worms, snails and chemosynthetic bacteria. 

Cluster of tubeworms at Fava Flow Suburbs (SOI)
Eelpouts in a cluster of tubeworms at Fava Flow Suburbs (SOI)
SuBastian delves beneath the crust at one of the smokers (SOI)
SuBastian delves beneath the Earth’s crust at one of the hot smokers (SOI)

When a new hydrothermal vent appears, it is known to become colonised within a few years – but scientists had always been baffled as to how animal larvae managed to find their new home.

Very few young specimens of vent-dwellers such as tubeworms had ever been found around the vents, and the team now believe they have found the evidence that the worms travel beneath the seabed through vent fluids to create their new communities.

“Our understanding of animal life at deep-sea hydrothermal vents has greatly expanded with this discovery,” said Dr Bright. “Two dynamic vent habitats exist. Vent animals above and below the surface thrive together in unison, depending on vent fluid from below and oxygen in the seawater from above.”  

A tubeworm (SOI)
Close-up of a deep-sea tubeworm (SOI)
The mesh box experiment (SOI)
The mesh box experiment (SOI)

ROV SuBastian conducted experiments in which it glued mesh boxes over cracks in the Earth’s crust at the Tica Vent site to exclude the possibility of organisms gaining access from above the seabed. When the boxes were removed after several days, animals were found to have colonised the hydrothermal cavity – and they could have got there only through fluid-filled fissures below the seabed. 

“This truly remarkable discovery of a new ecosystem, hidden beneath another ecosystem, provides fresh evidence that life exists in incredible places,” said SOI’s executive director Dr Jyotika Virmani.  “Schmidt Ocean Institute is proud to have provided a platform for Dr Bright and her team to gather new insights into these systems that may be vulnerable to deep-sea mining.”

Evidence of a new ecosystem: Inverted crust sample reveals tubeworms and other organisms (SOI)
Inverted crust sample reveals tubeworms and other organisms (SOI)

SOI was established in 2009 by Eric and Wendy Schmidt. “The discoveries made on each Schmidt Ocean Institute expedition reinforce the urgency of fully exploring our ocean so we know what exists in the deep sea,” said its president Wendy Schmidt.

“The discovery of new creatures, landscapes and, now, an entirely new ecosystem underscores just how much we have yet to discover about our ocean – and how important it is to protect what we don’t yet know or understand.”

Also on Divernet: Deep octopus nurseries on ‘edge of human imagination‘, Ocean Census targets 100k unknown marine species, Towering reef discovered in GBR, ’Minion’ squid filmed for first time

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