Entire communities of species that were previously unknown to science have been discovered on the Antarctic seafloor clustering around the hydrothermal vents.
The discoveries were made by teams led by the University of Oxford, University of Southampton, the National Oceanography Centre, and British Antarctic Survey, and include new species of yeti crab, starfish, barnacles, and sea anemones, and even an octopus that may or may not be new to science.
The researchers used a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) to explore the East Scotia Ridge located deep beneath the Southern Ocean. The hydrothermal vents found there, also known as ‘black smokers’, reach temperatures up to 382 degrees Celsius and create a unique environment, completely lacking in sunshine but high in the right sort of chemicals for life to evolve and thrive.
“Hydrothermal vents are home to animals found nowhere else on the planet that get their energy not from the Sun but from breaking down chemicals, such as hydrogen sulphide,” said Professor Alex Rogers of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, who led the research. “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.”
According to the University of Oxford press release, “highlights from the ROV dives include images showing huge colonies of the new species of yeti crab, thought to dominate the Antarctic vent ecosystem, clustered around vent chimneys. Elsewhere the ROV spotted numbers of an undescribed predatory seastar with seven arms crawling across fields of stalked barnacles and found an unidentified pale octopus nearly 2,400 metres down on the seafloor.”
“What we didn’t find is almost as surprising as what we did,” said Professor Rogers. “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.”
The research team believe that the Southern Ocean may act as a barrier to some vent animals, explaining why there is such a difference between vent animals underneath the Southern Ocean and those elsewhere. The researchers also believe that the unique species discovered at the East Scotia Ridge hydrothermal vents suggest that vent ecosystems may be much more diverse globally than had been previously thought, an their interactions more complex.
“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.”
Source: University of Oxford