Marine biologists have discovered a never-before-seen duo of organisms colonizing a deep-sea hydrothermal vent in the Atlantic Ocean.
“[T]he iconic symbol of Pacific vents is the tubeworm, while the iconic symbol of Atlantic vents is the vent shrimp … To find both together has important implications for the evolution of vent communities in the Caribbean as the Atlantic became separated from the Pacific some 5 million years ago,” said marine biologist Paul Tyler of the University of Southampton in a press release Sep. 7.
Although Tyler was aboard the NOAA expedition vessel, called the Okeanos Explorer, most of the science team worked from land. They watched real-time live video from a robotic submersible and communicated with the ship’s technicians using high-speed satellite communications.
NASA data from 2009 suggested hydrothermal vents, or openings on the ocean floor that spew volcanically heated water, lined a rocky underwater ridge near Grand Cayman Island. Instruments on board a UK-funded expedition in 2010 confirmed their existence at a location called the Mid-Cayman Rise.
In August 2011, Okeanos Explorer paid a more personal visit to the site with a submersible robot.
The team discovered the unlikely duo of shrimp and tubeworms, neither of which can rely on sunlight at the bottom of the ocean to power a food chain below them. Instead, the creatures have evolved to harbor chemosynthetic bacteria that feed on rich nutrients that billow from hydrothermal vents.
In addition to being the first time the animals have been found together, it was the first time a living tubeworm was found near a hydrothermal vent in the Atlantic. Live tubeworms were known only to exist on Pacific Ocean hydrothermal vents.
Images: 1) Chemosynthetic bacteria living in a tubeworm’s tissue color it burgundy. [high-resolution version available] 2) Close-ups of the underwater discovery. Chemosynthetic tubeworms are labelled “T” while the shrimp are labelled “S.” Small white dots are marine snails. [high-resolution version available](NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program/MCR Expedition 2011/NOAA-OER)