TOPICS > Science

Under the Sea Near Antarctica, ‘a Riot of Life’ Discovered in Super-Heated Water

January 4, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Scientists discovered many new species on the floor of the Southern Ocean near Antarctica -- something they're describing as a "riot of life." Jeffrey Brown speaks with former oceanographer Mark Schrope about the newest known species of sea life found around hydrothermal vents.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, scientists are calling it a riot of life: new species never before seen. Researchers plunged to the depths of the Southern Ocean near Antarctica miles below the surface amid so-called hydrothermal vents or what look like chimneys that spew boiling black smoke.

There they discovered such creatures as new kinds of crabs, an albino octopus, and much more. The team of scientists have just published their findings in the journal PLoS Biology.

Here to walk us through the discovery is Mark Schrope, a freelance science writer and former oceanographer.

Welcome to you.

Give us a bit of background first. What exactly is a hydrothermal vent and how did scientists come upon this one?

MARK SCHROPE, former oceanographer: Well, these vents are places in the seafloor where you have a lot of volcanic and geologic activity under way. So you have a lot of heat down there below the seafloor and some water makes its way down into the rocks and down below the seafloor, and finds various places to seep back out eventually.

The most striking feature was just hordes of these crabs called yeti crabs that have sort of hairy chests and hairy arms that they grow bacteria on.Mark Schrope, former oceanographer

And the water is superheated hundreds of degrees. And because of that path through the rocks below it, the water’s filled with minerals and chemicals. And some of those chemicals can form these huge formations that are the vent. They call them chimneys. And there’s chemicals in the water that are able to support life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, they referred to this as a — what we called a riot of life. Tell us about the discoveries that were found there.

MARK SCHROPE: Well, the most striking feature was just hordes of these crabs called yeti crabs that have sort of hairy chests and hairy arms that they grow bacteria on.

But everywhere they went, one of the scientists described it as just discovery after discovery. They got — I can’t even remember the count on the number of species, but there were these barnacles that grow in clumps. There were sea anemones. There was a starfish that goes around and eats some of this stuff. There was an albino-looking octopus. There was just a whole range of species that were all new.

JEFFREY BROWN: So new, previously unknown? I mean, that’s what the excitement is here, right? That’s what makes this so interesting and important?

MARK SCHROPE: Right.

Well, new species are always interesting, but also the fact that the assemblage that you had — nobody had ever seen these crabs living like this. They looked like — they look a little like bones, it was described, because they’re kind of whitish , but as far as the big picture, it’s almost like a beehive.

These crabs are just covering these things, so that you can’t even see the rock below and kind of jockeying for the best position and fighting each other.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you wrote a piece on this today. You said it was the first ecological system found to use chemicals rather than sunlight as a foundation. This goes back to your initial description of what these vents are. But explain that a bit.

MARK SCHROPE: Well, that was the discovery they made in the 1970s, that — and people know that there are certain connections such as oxygen with the surface.

But for the most part, what they found in the ’70s was that these communities that completely separated from the surface certainly no sunlight makes it there, so they don’t have plants to sort of start life going there. So, instead, what you have are bacteria that can — in a similar way to plants using sunlight to make food, these bacteria use the chemicals in the hot water that comes out to make food.

So all of these vents are dependent on that chemistry, the bacteria at the base of it. And all of the animals either get their food from those bacteria — and some of them actually eat the bacteria — or they eat the things that eat the bacteria.

So it was just a sort of whole new scheme of life that people didn’t realize was out there. And so each time they have made it to new vent systems, they find these new, different — different types of animals, but they’re all doing the same thing, in the sense that they’re all dependent on those chemicals for life.

JEFFREY BROWN: And are there likely to be more of these vents or areas of unknown — previously unknown biological life?

MARK SCHROPE: Absolutely.

They know these things now are everywhere. They call them the spreading centers. They’re the places where the geology, the tectonic plates are spreading apart on the seafloor. And these things, if you look at a map of the seafloor, they run like seams down the middle and in some places the sides of all the oceans.

And they have pretty much shown that just about anywhere that you have these seams where the — where the seafloor is spreading apart, if you look reasonably long enough, you’re going to find these vents.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you quoted in your article one scientist as saying — this is a quote — “It’s remarkable that we can be in the 21st century and still not know fundamental things about what lives on our planet.”

Kind of striking. That’s what this is all about?

MARK SCHROPE: It is. And it’s a really sort of common aspect of ocean exploration especially.

The — there’s so few vehicles to do this and there’s so much ocean floor, that it’s really not a surprise when you find something amazing and something new. It’s just a matter of getting to these places.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mark Schrope, thanks so much for telling us about it.

MARK SCHROPE: Happy to do it.