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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View Caption +#2: 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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View Caption +#3: Yeti Crab
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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View Caption +#4: 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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View Caption +#5: Sea Anemone
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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View Caption +#6: 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.Alex Rogers
View Caption +#7: ROV Mission Control
The ROV was controlled from this video screen lined room aboard the research vessel.Alex Rogers
View Caption +#8: Smoker Section
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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View Caption +#9: Sea Lily
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.NERC ChEsSo Consortium
View Caption +#10: Sea Stars
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.NERC ChEsSo Consortium
View Caption +#11: Stalked barnacles
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.NERC ChEsSo Consortium
View Caption +#12: Ghost Octopus
An unknown species of octopus was found at E9. The scientists know little about it, besides that it exists.
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View Caption +#13: 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.NERC ChEsSo Consortium
View Caption +#14: 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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Russian scientists believe they have found a wholly new type of bacteria in the subglacial Lake Vostok in Antarctica, the RIA Novosti news agency reported on March 7.
The samples obtained from the underground lake in May 2012 contained a bacteria which bore no resemblance to existing types, said Sergei Bulat of the genetics laboratory at the Saint Petersburg Institute of Nuclear Physics.
“After putting aside all possible elements of contamination, DNA was found that did not coincide with any of the well-known types in the global database,” he said.
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“We are calling this life form unclassified and unidentified,” he added.
The discovery comes from samples collected in an expedition in 2012 where a Russian team drilled down to the surface of Lake Vostok, which is believed to have been covered by ice for more than a million years but has kept its liquid state.
Lake Vostok is the largest subglacial lake in Antarctica and scientists have long wanted to study its eco-system. The Russian team last year drilled almost four kilometres (2.34 miles) to reach the lake and take the samples.
Bulat said that the interest surrounded one particular form of bacteria whose DNA was less than 86 percent similar to previously existing forms.
“In terms of work with DNA this is basically zero. A level of 90 percent usually means that the organism is unknown.”
He said it was not even possible to find the genetic descendants of the bacteria.
“If this had been found on Mars everyone would have undoubtedly said there is life on Mars. But this is bacteria from Earth.”
Bulat said that new samples of water would be taken from Lake Vostok during a new expedition in May.
“If we manage to find the same group of organisms in this water we can say for sure that we have found new life on Earth that exists in no database,” Bulat said.
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Exploring environments such as Lake Vostok allows scientists to discover what life forms can exist in the most extreme conditions and thus whether life could exist on some other bodies in the solar system.
There has long been excitement among some scientists that life theoretically could exist on Saturn’s moon Enceladus and the Jupiter moon Europa as they are believed to have oceans, or large lakes, beneath their icy shells.
The possibility that the lake existed had first been suggested by a Soviet scientist in 1957. Scientific research drilling in the area started in 1989 and the lake’s existence was confirmed only in 1996.