Tag Archives: hydrothermal vent

Scientists find superhot “mirror” pools in unique deep Pacific environment

While exploring two types of unusual deepwater environments (hydrothermal vent and cold seep environments), researchers came across something unexpected: reflective water pools.

The expedition was an unprecedented and thorough study of hydrothermal and gas plumes — two environments which act as thriving oases in otherwise cold and unfriendly waters. The team used advanced technology that included 4K deep-sea underwater cameras and radiation tracking devices, as well as sediment and fluid samplers working via a remotely operated vehicle.

In this surreal world, researchers discovered large venting mineral towers reaching up to 23 meters in height and 10 meters across. Due to superheated hydrothermal fluids beneath them (366ºC), it creates a mirror-like illusion.

This feature, while visually stunning, wasn’t the most impressive thing for researchers: the waters in the area were laden with minerals and metals, and were generally highly sulfidic — yet these sites were teeming with biodiversity and potentially novel fauna. Life, as they say, finds a way.

“We discovered remarkable towers where every surface was occupied by some type of life. The vibrant colors found on the ‘living rocks’ was striking, and reflects a diversity in biological composition as well as mineral distributions,” said Dr. Mandy Joye, who led the interdisciplinary team.

A discarded Christmas tree on the bottom of the sea

Hydrothermal vent fluid collects under the ledges and provides the chemical energy driving the entire ecosystem of microbes, scale worms, and riftia (tube worms). Image credits: Schmidt Ocean Institute.

But researchers also came across a stern reminder of how we humans are affecting these pristine environments: a lot of trash.

“Unfortunately, even in these remote and beautiful environments we saw copious amounts of trash including fishing nets, deflated Mylar balloons, and even a discarded Christmas trees. This provided a stark juxtaposition next to the spectacular mineral structures and biodiversity.”

In addition to analyzing and describing these unique settings, which likely hold numerous species new to science, researchers also hope to inspire people to care more about preserving these environments

“It is a different world down there. Each dive feels like floating into a science fiction film,” said Schmidt Ocean Institute Cofounder Wendy Schmidt. “The complex layers of data we’ve collected aboard Falkor during this expedition will help tell the story of this remote place and bring it to public attention. Witnessing these remarkable oceanscapes, we are reminded that although they are out of our everyday sight, they are hardly immune from human impact. Our hope is to inspire people to learn more and care more about our ocean.”

The team will publicly release the results of the samples, in the attempt of gaining a more complete understanding of the Gulf of California system.

Example of hydrothermal vent. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

NASA scientists create basic building blocks of life in a ‘primordial ocean’

Example of hydrothermal vent. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Example of a hydrothermal vent. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The origin of life is one of the most important questions in science. For NASA, answering this question is especially important because it enables scientists to narrow down their search for alien life, in the solar system or beyond. In a new study, a research team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, reported how it managed to create amino acids — the basic building blocks of life that, like pieces of LEGO, assemble into proteins — in an environment that simulates what the ocean floor was like four billion years ago.

Life in a jar

Researchers made miniature seafloors by filling beakers with a solution that mimics Earth’s primordial ocean, including a hydrothermal vent — cracks in the seafloor where hot fluid escapes from the crust. These porous geological structures are produced by chemical reactions between solid rock and water, as alkaline fluids from the Earth’s crust flow up the vent towards the more acidic ocean water. This interaction leads to natural proton concentration differences remarkably similar to those powering all living cells.

Like an underwater chimney, hydrothermal vents produce a warm environment that is constantly in flux, which is why biologists have identified them as a probable hotspot for the formation of life.

“Understanding how far you can go with just organics and minerals before you have an actual cell is really important for understanding what types of environments life could emerge from,” Laurie Barge, and astrobiologist and the first author on the new study, said in a statement. “Also, investigating how things like the atmosphere, the ocean and the minerals in the vents all impact this can help you understand how likely this is to have occurred on another planet.”

Barge and colleagues combined water and minerals, along with pyruvate and ammonia, which are precursor molecules to amino acids. The solution was heated to around 158ºF (70ºC), the average temperature of a hydrothermal vent, and researchers adjusted the pH in order to mimic an alkaline environment. Oxygen was carefully removed until it reached a low concentration, similar to that of early Earth when cyanobacteria had yet to transform the planet’s suffocating atmosphere. Finally, the researchers also added iron hydroxide, also known as “green rust”, which was abundant billion of years ago.

A time-lapse video of a miniature hydrothermal chimney forming in the lab. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

A time-lapse video of a miniature hydrothermal chimney forming in the lab. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The researchers found that the green rust reacted with the oxygen from the solution, producing the amino acid alanine and the alpha hydroxy acid lactate. The latter is important because alpha hydroxy acids are the byproducts of amino acid reactions, and are therefore considered to be essential components of the complex organic molecules that might form life.

“We’ve shown that in geological conditions similar to early Earth, and maybe to other planets, we can form amino acids and alpha hydroxy acids from a simple reaction under mild conditions that would have existed on the seafloor,” said Barge.

Jupiter’s moon, Europa, is believed to hide a deep ocean of salty liquid water beneath its icy shell. Now, a new Nasa study has revealed that this ocean may have an Earth-like chemical balance that could sustain life. Credit: NASA.

Previously, researchers had investigated whether the right ingredients for life could be found in hydrothermal vents or if they could supply enough power to drive important chemical reactions. However, this was the first time that scientists produced the precursors to life in a hydrothermal-vent-like environment.

Such environments are believed to exist elsewhere in the solar system, beneath the thick ice that covers Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. In the future, NASA would like to send robotic exploration missions to these worlds that might drill through the ice and gather evidence of amino acids and other biological signatures.

“We don’t have concrete evidence of life elsewhere yet,” said Barge. “But understanding the conditions that are required for life’s origin can help narrow down the places that we think  could exist.”

The findings appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers find rare hydrothermal vent off the coast of Portuguese islands

Researchers have discovered a new hydrothermal vent near the Gigante Seamount in the Azores — Portuguese islands in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Map of the Gigante seamount with the Mid Atlantic Ridge separating the North American and Eurasian plates. Image from the Hydrographic Institute of the Portuguese Navy.

Surveying the pristine seas around the Azores Islands, researchers from the University of the Azores (IMAR–UAz) were thrilled to discover a previously unknown hydrothermal vent. Telmo Morato, ATLAS principal investigator at IMAR–UAz, who is leading the expedition dives, summed up the finding in just four words: “this is just fantastic!”

The reason why Morato is so excited is not only because he found a new hydrothermal vent — one of the rares and most unique ecosystems on Earth — but also because this one is much more easily accessible than other such systems, which makes it much easier to study. Hydrothermal fields are poorly understood so far, largely because they are so remote and difficult to study.

[panel style=”panel-default” title=”Hydrothermal vents” footer=””]Hydrothermal vents are essentially cracks in the planet’s surface from which geothermally heated water rises. They’re commonly found in volcanically active areas, where tectonic plates are moving apart at spreading centers, ocean basins, and hotspots.

Chimney of the new vent field where hydrothermal activity is visible. Image from ROV “LUSO”, Portuguese Task Force for the Extension of the Continental Shelf.

Because this unusual setting provides heat and useful nutrients, the areas around submarine hydrothermal vents are biologically more productive, often hosting complex communities fueled by the chemicals dissolved in the vent fluids. Chemosynthetic bacteria and archaea form the basis of the food chain, which supports bizarre creatures such as giant tube worms, clams, limpets and shrimp.

Researchers are also very interested in hydrothermal vents since such environments are thought to exist on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus, where they may very well be capable of supporting life.[/panel]

The discovery was made using the Portuguese ROV “Luso”, which is capable of diving to a depth of a staggering 6,000 m. The vent itself lies at a depth of “only” 570 m, some 100 km away from the Faial Island, sometimes considered the westernmost point of Europe, even though tectonically it lies on the North American Plate.

Highlighted here: Faial Island, a Portuguese island with a population of approximately 15,000 people. The vent lies just 100 km from the island. Image via Google.

The researchers have already found evidence that bacteria are growing in great numbers around these vents and are likely to support other, more complex life forms. Although the environment is dark and frigid, these chemosynthetic bacteria don’t need sunlight to survive and can form the base of surprisingly rich food chains. With heat also coming from the vent, all the conditions are met for supporting this type of ecosystem.

This unexpected discovery is a huge step forward for deep-sea exploration and the better understanding of these untouched ecosystems. Currently, only 3% of the ocean is protected, and the team is gathering more data to see if the newly-discovered vent fits the required criteria to be considered endangered.

Professor Murray Roberts, ATLAS Project coordinator at the University of Edinburgh, said:

‘This just shows how little we know about the deep sea, the largest ecosystem on our planet. Hydrothermal vents not only form oases of life in the deep ocean, but research over the last 20 years has shown the minerals they release also have important consequences for life throughout the ocean. As plans to mine deep sea minerals are developed around the world it’s absolutely essential we understand these relationships to protect the oceans and the support functions they provide to all life on Earth.’


A 'black smoker' (left), the hottest type of vent. Skate egg cases collected in the area (right). Credit: Ocean Exploration Trust.

Deep-sea marine animals lay eggs near hydrothermal vents so they hatch faster

Deep-sea skates lay their eggs in the vicinity of hydrothermal vents to accelerate hatching, a surprising new study reveals. This is the first time that biologists have recorded such a behavior in marine animals.

A 'black smoker' (left), the hottest type of vent. Skate egg cases collected in the area (right). Credit: Ocean Exploration Trust.

A ‘black smoker’ (left), the hottest type of vent. Skate egg cases collected in the area (right). Credit: Ocean Exploration Trust.

The first time scientists suspected something like this was happening was in 2015 when they were surveying the seafloor northwest of the Galapagos Islands. The team, which was comprised of researchers at the University of Rhode Island and the Charles Darwin Research Station, was exploring the underwater mountains around the Galapagos when their remotely-operated submersible caught sight of something peculiar. Large numbers of egg cases of deep-sea skate, which are related to sharks and rays, were found littering the hot water around hydrothermal vents.

“We were on a really deep dive in a hydrothermally-active rift valley, with walls 30 meters tall on either side, and the ROV was meandering back and forth looking for vents,” said Brennan Phillips, an assistant professor of ocean engineering at the University of Rhode Island. “We started noticing all these egg cases, and we recorded their location and collected a few but then just kept going.”

Later, Phillips and colleagues analyzed the egg locations and found these coincided with known hydrothermal vent locations. A hydrothermal vent is a fissure in a planet’s surface from which geothermally heated water issues. Hydrothermal vents are commonly found near volcanically active places, areas where tectonic plates are moving apart at spreading centers, ocean basins, and hotspots.

The researchers hypothesize that the eggs are intentionally placed by the skates where the water is warmer than average in order to speed up hatching.

In total, 157 egg cases, each the size of an iPhone, were observed by the researchers. DNA analysis suggests these belonged to the Pacific white skate (Bathyraja spinosissima), which lives up to two thousand metres deep. Hence, not very much is known about this elusive creature.

Pacific White Skate. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Pacific White Skate. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

About 58 percent of the egg cases were collected from within 20 meters of a black smoker, which is the hottest kind of hydrothermal vent, and 89 percent of all egg cases discovered by the group were laid in water that was hotter than the background temperature of 2.76 degrees Centigrade.

However, the eggs weren’t placed right next to the vents — temperatures there can exceed hundreds of degrees. Instead, most of the eggs were found in the lukewarm water not too far from the vents and near extinct vents, the authors wrote in Scientific Reports.

More skate egg cases. Credit: Ocean Exploration Trust.

More skate egg cases. Credit: Ocean Exploration Trust.

Phillips says that other marine animals likely do the same. When he showed the data to shark experts, they nodded their heads and said they had anecdotal evidence of shark and ray egg cases found near hydrothermal vents.

Non-marine animals take advantage of naturally warmer-than-average hot spots, as well. The Polynesian megapode (Megapodius pritchardii) nests in volcanically-heated soils, for instance. Even some dinosaurs likely did the same, judging from Cretaceous era sauropod fossils. 

Phillips believes that sharks, rays, skates, and possibly other animals — all of which evolved about 500 million years ago — have adapted to these unusual conditions and made the most of them.

“Seafloor volcanism comes and goes, and it is often one of the causes of mass extinctions,” he said. “It’s interesting to me that we’re seeing sharks and skates thriving around volcanoes and vent sites, like they’re especially resilient and have evolved to withstand the hot water environment.”


Antarctica Yeti Crab Grows and Harvests its Own Food

Scientists have discovered and described the only known species of Yeti Crab that resides in Antarctica’s Southern Ocean. The crab, which has white fur-like bristles all over its body, survives in an extremely inhospitable environment, close to the hydrothermal vents that spew hot water in the freezing ocean.

Image via NOAA.

Sven Thatje from the University of Southampton first discovered the species in 2010, thanks to footage from a remotely-operated submersible vehicle (ROV). The ROV dove 8,500 feet (2,500 meters) below sea level and found that the yeti crab is the dominant species in the environment created by the hydrothermal vent. After that, they gathered specimens and studied them using genetic sequencing and computed tomography (CT) scanning. Their description of the creature’s strange morphology is published today (June 24) in the journal PLOS ONE. They named it Kiwa tyleri, after respected British polar and deep-ocean biologist Paul Tyler from Southampton University.

The Yeti Crab. Image via University of Southampton.

Thatje explains why this discovery is significant:

“Crabs and lobsters are very rare in Antarctic/Southern Ocean waters because of the unusually low seawater temperatures,” Thatje said. “A physiological limit to maintaining activities required for survival (ventilation, molting, mating) appears to exist at around 0.5 degrees C [32.9 degrees F].”

In other words, even though the crab is adapted to a cold environment and developed a stark white color and “hairy body”, it still can’t survive in very cold waters – that’s why they are so crowded together around the hydrothermal vent. A hydrothermal vent is a fissure in a planet’s surface from which geothermally heated water pumps up into the ocean, creating a hot pocket of water. In 2012, an expedition found hundreds of crabs clumped up one over another.

“They’re literally, in places, heaped up upon each other,” Alex Rogers, a professor of zoology at Oxford University who led the expedition to the East Scotia Ridge, said in 2012. Photographs taken by Rogers’ team show 600 crabs per square meter.

It seems like the entire species inhabits only a few cubic meters, which raises the question: if so many crabs are clumped up together, what do they eat? The answer was surprising: the yeti crab uses its “fur” to harvest bacteria, which it grows and then relies on for nutrition.

“The Antarctic Yeti Crab is trapped in its warm-water hydrothermal vent site by the cold polar waters of the surrounding deep-sea. The species has adapted to this very limited sized habitat — of a few cubique metres in volume — by occurring in highly-packed densities and by relying on bacteria they grow on their fur-like setae [stiff bristles] for nutrition,” Dr Thatje said in a press release.