Antarctic researchers have discovered entire communities of new species living in and on deep-sea hydrothermal vents in the Southern Ocean. The team of British scientists reported their results, which detail the new creatures and their habitats, on Tuesday (January 3) in the PLoS Biology journal.
In the first exploration of these vents that lie along the very bottom of the ocean floor near Antarctica, the researchers, led by Alex D. Rogers of the zoology department at Oxford University, found colonies of as-yet-undiscovered types of yeti crab, stalked barnacles, limpets and snails, sea anemones, and even, the study notes, “a predatory seven-armed starfish.”
Rogers and his colleagues used a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) to scour the terrain of one piece of the Southern Ocean Floor. On the East Scotia Ridge, an area that lies between the southernmost tip of South America and Antarctica, the researchers explored the hydrothermal vents, which can create undersea environments of over 800 degrees Fahrenheit.
The species who live on these vents underneath the sea are special, because they harness their energy from the vents themselves, rather than the species closer to the surface, which can access sunlight. As Rogers writes in their report, the vents “are mainly associated with seafloor spreading at mid-ocean ridges and in basins near volcanic island arcs. They host animals found nowhere else that derive their energy not from the sun but from bacterial oxidation of chemicals in the vent fluids, particularly hydrogen sulphide.”
The ROVs brought back images that interested the researchers for a number of reasons. It turns out that this hydrothermal habitat was very different from similar areas in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. “What we didn’t find is almost as surprising as what we did,” said Rogers. The usual vent animals, such as tubeworms, mussels, crabs, and shrimps that have been found in the other oceans, did not appear in this exploration, which suggests that vent ecosystems could be much more diverse than scientists have thought. Instead, the ROVs showed entirely new species, including a crowded colonies of over 600 yeti crabs clustered around each vent, utilizing the natural heat emissions for warmth.
“We were completely blown away by what we found,” Jon Copley, a co-researcher from the University of Southampton told Fox News’s LiveScience. “These are the lushest, richest vents, in terms of life, that I’ve come across.”