Antarctic Deep-Sea Exploration Reveals Lost World

While space is often referred to as “the final frontier”, a grand and mysterious world awaits exploration in our own back yard. Scientists from the University of Oxford,University of Southampton, the National Oceanography Centre, and British Antarctic Survey have explored the nether regions of the Antarctic Ocean. What it revealed to them was a mysterious world teeming with life and may redefine our understanding of the biogeography of hydrothermal vents.

Hydrothermal Vents of East Scotia Ridge

Using a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), scientists were able to explore the hydrothermal vents of the East Scotia Ridge (ESR). The vents were located in the extreme depths of the Antarctic Ocean. A map below shows the ridge location and it’s proximity to the other continents.

East Scotia Ridge
Map of the East Scotia Ridge (Courtesy PLoS Biology)

This expedition marks the first time that researchers were able to explore the depths of the ESR. Here they found hydrothermal vents called “black smokers”, like the one pictured below, which reach temperatures up to 382 degrees  Celsius.  The team reported their findings in this week’s  PLoS Biology.

Black Smoker Vent
An Example of the Black Smoker Vents Taken at the ESR Site (Courtesy of PLoS Biology)

Life in the Great Deep

Hydrothermal vents all over the world have proved to be a breeding ground for a variety of new fauna. The ESR site did not disappoint.

 The first survey of these particular vents, in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica, has revealed a hot, dark, lost world’ in which whole communities of previously unknown marine organisms thrive’, said  Professor Alex Rogers of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology.

Rather than getting their energy from sunlight as most of the world we are familiar with, vent creatures gather energy from breaking down chemicals such as, hydrogen sulphide.  The following images highlight some of the wonderful discoveries that were made.

Unidentified Octopus
Unidentified Octopus (Courtesy of PLoS Biology)
Yeti Crab
A new species of Yeti Crab found at the ESR. (Courtesy of PLoS Biology)
Undescribed Seven Armed Predatory Star Fish
Undescribed Seven Armed Predatory Star Fish (Courtesy of PLoS Biology)

A Whole New World

Just as amazing as finding all of these new creatures, was the lack of other creatures familiar to hydrothermal vents across the globe. It was once thought the Antarctic region might have acted as a gateway connecting the vents of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. What turned out to be true was that this area is its own biological region.  Professor Rogers said, “Many animals such as tubeworms, vent mussels, vent crabs, and vent shrimps, found in hydrothermal vents in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, simply weren’t there.” Now they believe that vent systems may be more diverse globally and that the Antarctic Ocean may act as a barrier instead of a gateway between global vents.

These findings are yet more evidence of the precious diversity to be found throughout the world’s oceans,’ said Professor Rogers. Everywhere we look, whether it is in the sunlit coral reefs of tropical waters or these Antarctic vents shrouded in eternal darkness, we find unique ecosystems that we need to understand and protect.’

Such research is vital to our understanding of how these creatures are dispersed and prevents we humans from damaging the fragile environments of these creatures out of ignorance. It only goes to show how much there is still left to learn in our own world.

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Darrin Jenkins

Darrin is an IT manager for a large electrical contractor in Louisville KY. He is married and has 3 kids. He loves helping people with their technology needs. He runs a blog called Say Geek!