Deep ocean hydrothermal vents are much more common than previously thought. Researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle used a new technique to look for vents and found that they’re not as far apart as previous research had estimated.
Hydrothermal vents are fissures found at the bottom of the ocean. Water is drawn in, gets heated up by molten rock, and shoots back up along with minerals such as sulfides. The minerals can solidify and build up, creating large chimney-like structures. These underwater vents sustain strange, specialized forms of life. The sulfides and other minerals support the growth of certain bacteria species. These bacteria are then consumed by the odd residents of the area, giant tube worms that resemble lipstick, blind shrimp, and various types of crabs, snails, fish, and bivalves.
In the past, it was thought that these vents were uncommon features on the ocean floor. They were thought to be spaced far apart, raising questions about how the creatures manage to relocate. Scientists had found genetically similar creatures in hydrothermal vents that were nowhere near each other. The animals found on and near these vents are mostly immobile so it was unknown how they managed to spread.
The researchers developed a new type of sensor for finding hydrothermal vents. The sensor was designed to detect chemicals that tend to erupt from the vents, allowing the scientists to find smaller or less active vents that are normally difficult to spot. They found that hydrothermal vents are at least 3 to 6 times more common than previous estimations suggested. This explains how the animals’ offspring are able to find and live on new vents.
The scientists had only analyzed 1,470 kilometers of the Pacific Ocean so future research will need to be done in other parts of the ocean. The findings are a good start to proper estimations on hydrothermal vent densities and distances. There are reasons to study these vents besides the fascinating forms of life found in and around them. There’s a popular theory, put forth by the scientist Günter Wächtershäuser, that these types of vents are where life first formed.
E.T. Baker et al. How many vent fields? New estimates of vent field populations on ocean ridges from precise mapping of hydrothermal discharge locations. Earth and Planetary Science Letters (2016).