Southampton scientists have been exploring the undersea volcanic vents from the Caribbean to the Antarctic, discovering previously unseen deep-sea creatures and revealing how species disperse and evolve in the ocean depths.
Five kilometres down in a rift in the seafloor of the Caribbean, a team led by University marine biologist Dr Jon Copley and marine geochemist Dr Doug Connelly of the National Oceanography Centre Southampton has discovered the world's most extreme deep-sea vents.
These undersea hot springs are 0.8 kilometres deeper than any seen before, may be hotter than 450 degrees centigrade and are shooting a jet of mineral-laden water more than a kilometre into the ocean above. "These vents may be one of the few places on the planet where we can study reactions between rocks and 'supercritical' fluids at extreme temperatures and pressures," says Doug.
Despite the extreme conditions, the vents are swarming with thousands of a new species of shrimp that has a light-sensing organ on its back. "Understanding how species thrive at deep-sea vents is expanding our perspectives of the limits of life," says Jon.
Meanwhile, Professor Paul Tyler has led the exploration of deep-sea vents further south than ever before, 2.4 kilometres beneath the icy waters of the Antarctic. Here the vents teem with thousands of "Hoff" crabs- a new species nicknamed for its hairy-chested resemblance to Baywatch actor David Hasselhoff.
The Antarctic vents are also home to colonies of other new species including stalked barnacles and seven-armed seastars. "The discovery of hydrothermal vents in Antarctic waters adds an important piece to the jigsaw puzzle of life in the deep ocean," says Paul.
By investigating how the species at different vents around the world are related, the scientists are revealing how animals disperse and evolve in the deep ocean. "We urgently need to understand the patterns of life in our planet's largest environment- the deep ocean- if we are going to use its resources sustainably in the future," Jon explains.
The scientists will be exploring the Caribbean and Antarctic vents further in late 2012 and early 2013 with Isis, the National Oceanography Centre's deep-diving remotely operated vehicle, which can work at a depth of 6 kilometres.