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Uncovering the deepest black smokers

Tue, 10th Jan 2012

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A team from the University of Southampton and the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton have found new deep sea vents known as black smokers, after the black, mineral rich water they belch out, 5km down in a trench just off the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean, and a host of new species living around them. The vents are also almost a kilometre deeper than any other deep sea vents found, and one of them is spewing out a plume of mineral-laden water over a kilometre up into the sea!

The team sent an unmanned sub down to the vents to observe them and bring back samples of any life they found down there. Because despite the estimated temperature of the water – 450 degrees C, and the crushing pressures at that depth, it’s not a lifeless landscape – the marine biologists led by Dr Jon Copley found a new species of shrimp clustering round the vents. They’ve called it Rimicaris hybisae, and it has no eyes, but it does have a light sensing organ on its back, which might possibly help the shrimp navigate their way around in the dim glow that comes from the black smokers themselves. And it might come in handy for manoeuvring around their neighbours – the shrimp were found in huge clusters with over 2000 shrimp per square metre! At another of the vents, on Mount Dent, a huge undersea mountain, yet more new species were found – a snake like fish, more shrimp and an amphipod, which is a type of crustacean.

And finding vents at all on an undersea mountain is very unusual – the Van Damm vent field as the researchers named the Mount Dent grouping of vents (after the geochemist Karen, not Jean Claude!) is the first of its kind to be discovered, and it has led Dr Douglas Connelly, the paper’s lead author, to suggest that deep sea vents may actually be more common than we thought, and that that might explain how the species that live clustered around hydrothermal vents like this could have spread to other vents far away.

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