Jan. 3, 2012 --
Whole communities of previously unknown species thrive around deep-sea hydrothermal vents off the coast of Antarctica. A team of researchers led by the University of Oxford, University of Southampton and British Antarctic Survey used a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) to film and bring back samples from the depths at two locations. "What we didn't find is almost as surprising as what we did," said team leader Alex Rogers of Oxford University's Department of Zoology in a press release. "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 Actinostolid anemones and stalked vent barnacles (cf. Vulcanolepas) pictured here clinging to a vent were some of the dominant animals at the more southern location, dubbed E9, at approximately 60 degrees south latitude and 2,400 meters (7,900 feet) deep.
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Black Smoker Vent
Black smokers are high intensity vents that belch out water and chemicals at up to 382.8 degrees C. The chemicals the vents release form the base of the local food chain while the heat sustains lifeforms that would otherwise freeze in the deep sea. "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 Rogers. These Antarctic vents are legally protected by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources and the Antarctic Treaty, but deep sea vents further north may be threatened by deep-sea mining, warned Steven Chown of Stellenbosch University in a primer on hydrothermal vents published in the journal PloS One along with the findings of Rogers' team.
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One of the new species found on this expedition was a new species of yeti crab (Kiwa n. sp.) similar to another species Kiwa hirsuta. Genetic evidence suggests that the crabs diverged from a common ancestor approximately 12.2 million years ago. The yeti crabs were found at both locations E9 and the more northern E2, at 56 degrees south latitude and 2,600 meters deep.
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Crabs and Snails and Spiders, Oh My!
A yeti crab crawls over a groups previously unknown snail-like Peltospiroid gastropods while anemones sway in the current. Can you find the Pycnogonid sea spider hiding in the bottom left of the photo?
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A variety of sea anemones were found around the Antarctic vents. This large specimen clings to the side of one of the vents. Sea anemones are predators related to coral and jellyfish. Most use venomous tentacles to snag prey and drag it to their waiting maw. The venom also keeps predators at bay.
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Isis the ROV
This Remotely Operated Vehicle, named Isis, was lowered from the research vessel RRS James Cook. Isis sent back video of her journey and collected animals using both a scoop and a suction device. The samples were then dissected and analyzed to determine if they were new species. Another deep sea probe, the Seabird +911 CTD, sampled the water and analyzed the flow from the vents.
ROV Mission Control
The ROV was controlled from this video screen lined room aboard the research vessel.
Isis brought back this cross-section of a black smoker chimney to the surface. The chimneys build up due to volcanic activity which super-heats sea water which then jets back into the ocean. The dissolved minerals and other chemicals in the scalding water build up and form tubes. The researchers found black smoker chimneys up to 15 meters (49 feet) tall at the Antarctic sites.
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Although it looks like a flower, the sea lily, or crinoid, is actually an animal from the phylum Echinodermata. This one was photographed at the E9 site, near a collapsed lava dome known as the Devil's Punchbowl. The crinoid is an ancient class of animal first appearing in the fossil record during the Ordovacian Period, which occurred between 488.3 to 443.7 million years ago.
Another predator dining around the vents was a newly-discovered species of stichasterid sea star. The seven-armed star made a meal of yeti crabs and stalked barnacles while the scientists watched. Little else is known about this mysterious denizen of the deep. Sea stars are members of the phylum echinodermata, just like the sea lily. They occur in every ocean and are famous for their ability to regenerate their arms.
The sea stars fed on another newly discovered species of stalked barnacle. The barnacles of the genus Vulcanolepas, were genetically distinct from a similar species, V. Osheai, found on other hydrothermal vents. Stalked barnacles are filter feeding crustaceans.
An unknown species of octopus was found at E9. The scientists know little about it, besides that it exists.
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Yeti Crab Convention
Hardly a rarity, the yeti crabs covered the ground in some areas. The crabs are believed to be omnivores, feeding on the filamentous bacteria that feeds on the vents' chemical soup as well as the mussels and perhaps other animals.
Very Deep Sea Fishing
Few fish were found in the Antarctic vent ecosystem. But the ROV did manage to catch these Zoarcid fish in a baited trap.
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