Acid-Spewing Deep Sea Chimneys Yield New Marine Life

Researchers have identified six new species around hydrothermal vent stacks in the Indian Ocean that are located almost two miles beneath the surface.

Six new marine animal species have been found amid a previously unexplored cluster of hydrothermal vents deep in the Indian Ocean.

A research team from the University of Southampton made the finds during a survey of a football-sized patch of sea floor that will one day give way to licensed mining interests, owing to the area's promise as a source of copper and gold.

The site, about 1,243 miles (2,000 kilometers) southeast of Madagascar, is known as the Longqi vents. It rests some 1.7 miles (2.8 kilometers) below the surface and yielded the new animals from among mineral protrusions known as "vent chimneys" – many of the stacks jutting some two stories up off the sea floor.

Using remotely operated vehicles, the team found a new species of "Hoff" crab; two new snails; a previously unknown limpet; and two new species of worm.

Most of the new animals have not been formally described, but the scientists suspect the creatures are likely not unique to the Longqi vents.

"We can be certain that the new species we've found also live elsewhere in the southwest Indian Ocean, as they will have migrated here from other sites," explained research lead Jon Copley in a statement, "but at the moment no one really knows where or how well-connected their populations are with those at Longqi."

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Hydrothermal vents are essentially cracks in Earth's surface that release super-heated water, occurring either above ground or undersea. The chimney-like undersea stacks form when minerals from the hot, thermal vent water meet the much colder ocean water and form particles that build up over time. Communities of life form around the hydrothermal vents, as bacteria feed small creatures, which in turn draw larger animals into a food chain centered around the hot jets of water.

Copley pushed for more exploration of the area's remaining hydrothermal vents, to figure out the level of connectedness between animals living at the different sites, "before any impacts from mineral exploration activities and future deep-sea mining can be assessed."

In addition to the new species, Copley and his team found other animals that seemed a long way from home. In particular, the researchers came across a scaleworm known to inhabit vents more than 3,700 miles (6,000 kilometers) away and a ragworm whose next known home is a whopping 6,200 miles away (10,000 kilometers).

"Finding these two species at Longqi shows that some vent animals may be more widely distributed across the oceans than we realized," said Copley.

The researchers have published their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

Top Photo: A group of hairy-chested 'Hoff crabs' were found at the Longqi site. Credit: University of Southampton WATCH VIDEO: Can Bacteria on Earth Help Us Find Alien Life?