Marine biologists in Panama have discovered a new ecosystem under the seafloor.
An underwater robot helped uncover worms, snails and bacteria living in volcanic cavities beneath hydrothermal vents, 2,500m deep, on the East Pacific Rise off Central America.
The discoveries were made during a 30-day expedition aboard Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel, led by Dr Monika Bright, University of Vienna, along with an international science team from the US, Germany, Netherlands, France, Costa Rica and Slovenia.
"This truly remarkable discovery of a new ecosystem, hidden beneath another ecosystem, provides evidence that life exists in incredible places."
Hydrothermal vents act like underwater hot springs that flow through cracks in the earth’s crust as a result of tectonic activity. When a new hydrothermal vent appears, the ecosystem rapidly follows as animals colonise an area within a few years.
Bright said, “We made a discovery even better than I was expecting. This will change our view on life at vents. Our understanding of animal life at deep-sea hydrothermal vents has greatly expanded.”
Schmidt Ocean Institute’s executive director Dr Jyotika Virmani said, “On land we have long known of animals living in cavities underground and in the ocean of animals living in sand and mud but, for the first time, scientists have looked for animals beneath hydrothermal vents.
“This truly remarkable discovery of a new ecosystem, hidden beneath another ecosystem, provides fresh evidence that life exists in incredible places. Schmidt Ocean Institute is proud to have provided a platform for Dr Bright and her team to gather new insights into these systems that may be vulnerable to deep-sea mining.”
Using robot ROV SuBastian, the team overturned chunks of volcanic crust, discovering cave systems teeming with life living in 75-degree temperatures.
To achieve this, mesh boxes were glued over cracks in the earth’s crust. When the boxes were removed after several days, along with the crust, they discovered animals living below the surface.
President and co-founder of Schmidt Ocean Institute Wendy Schmidt said, “The discoveries made on each Schmidt Ocean Institute expedition reinforce the urgency of fully exploring our ocean so we know what exists in the deep sea.
“The discovery of new creatures, landscapes, and now, an entirely new ecosystem underscores just how much we have yet to discover about our ocean and how important it is to protect what we don’t yet know or understand.”